Brief theoretical premise on landscape: definitions, descriptors, actions

In recent decades, landscape has become a central topic in the debate of territory management. The approach to landscape takes necessary multidisciplinary knowledge, which has never been sufficiently clear, trying to respond to that set of actions to ensure the government and to guide and harmonize its variations, caused by social development, economic and environmental processes.

To investigate landscape, therefore, it is possible to define both theoretically and through existing projects, a number of fundamental descriptors confronting them according to this multidisciplinary approach described above in order to provide new opportunities for dialogue between different actors, different methods and different perspectives.

To choose few words that can describe effectively  landscape and its dynamics, one can start from its very definition. Throughout history it has been attributed to the concept of “landscape” countless definitions across different disciplines. First of all, it is possible to make a distinction from the meaning of neo-Latin origin, born in the fifteenth century, which has in its root “paes-” leading us to the Romance languages (paesaggio, paysage, passage, paisagem) and the one coming from a Germanic influence of “land-” (Landscape, Landschaft, Landschap). The last connotation indicates the territory in its real and natural extension, mostly connected with the concept of wilderness and “la naturalità della natura” [the naturalness of nature] (D’angelo, 2010), which differentiates from a scientific point of view without mediators of perception, deeply rooted in a more American school of thought. The first ideology refers to a portion of Landscape, a perceptual image embedded on historical impression, in which the interrelation with people and the continuous dynamic status of the environment are integral parts. The unifying force (the so-called “stimmung” of Simmel) is translated as the totality of the individual material elements as glanced by the viewer, which is the mediator for synthesis.

However, today it has been abandoned the position for which schools of thought have a clear geography of origin, it is alleged by now as the intrinsic ambivalent conception of Landscape. Landscape is referred to, on a European understanding, as a highly fragmented and hybrid product of nature and culture: two aspects which are chasing each other all the time, sometimes in balance and sometimes with the predominance of one to another. The Landscape disciplines attribute mainly two different connotations: the subjective and perceptive dimension, which is the contemplation of nature (aesthetic view) and the objective and (spatial/geographical dimension), which sees landscape as “l’insieme delle fattezze sensibili di una località, nel loro aspetto statico e nel loro dinamismo” ["all the sensitive features of a place, in their static aspect and in their dynamism"] (Toschi, 1962). This double vision is entrenched in the vision of Renato Biasutti (1947), Italian geographer, who defines a sensitive landscape as what the eye can embrace and what it can be sensorial perceived, a geographical landscape consisting of elements that makes it possible to describe and identify the Earth’s forms of landscape.

Even Aldo Sestini (1963), Italian geographer and geologist, talks about panoramic view: a subjectively perceived image of an Earth’s surface from a specific view shaft. But the environment’s complexity, especially when including humans (factor neglected by Biasutti) recognizes the specificity of phenomena and contexts, considering the temporal component which develops incessant dynamics of transformation in the territory.

The landscape can be seen also as a matrix of different elements, as approached by many disciplines but, at the same time, is the border between one and another, the contact point between the natural and human sciences and between objective approaches and subjective assessments. It is both a historical phenomenon, a document, a witness and past stratifications, it is a malleable and constantly changing body, as well as the fragile reflection of the evolution of the times. And much more.

However, what it is repeated in several dissertations on the landscape is the presence of man, both as an active component of continuous and transformative interactions with nature, and as a synthesizer of definition.

The European Landscape Convention (2000) has disclosed a definition of landscape that follows what is described above: landscape as “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”. This definition shows how landscape is the product of a relationship between any person who observes and an object being observed, highlighting the importance of vision as the main instrument of mediation. In addition, the term “interaction” does not intend an immediate process, but a rather deep re-elaboration in which the transformation is inherent to the landscape concept itself.

It is this dynamic process that denies the reduction to a single definition, accepting its “plasticità semantica” [semantic plasticity] (Dematteis, 1995) and suggesting a general guideline meaning rather than exhaustive.

Emilio Sereni (1961), famous Italian agriculture historian, denounced the “hypostatization” danger of the agricultural landscape as the tendency to consider only the most evident aspects stored on the territory, concealing the traces of transformation, of crises and of reworking processes.

The territory is shaped not as a static image but as a reflection of struggles and conflicts as a dynamic action that not only affects agricultural production systems but also the social hierarchy and power.

Sereni was the pioneer of a history that does not stop at territory structures, but it teaches you to observe the forms, which are an image of interactions and transformations.

And in the paradigm of continuous transformation, one can find the theme of fragility: a multifaceted concept and that can be interpreted from many points of view, the complexity enables it to position itself as the characteristic paradigm of the landscape in many different contexts.

It is a risk, a threat, a growing danger that comes from the breakdown of a balance in the human-environment relationship.

In recent decades, the European Landscape has been affected by progressive degradation (an antithetical aspect of the modern development), which is undermining the environmental values, the quality, and the safety. The driving forces for change are mostly attributable to a socio-economic, technological and cultural development and to human and artificial activities, calling into question the concept of modernity and progress.

The artificiality, therefore, becomes the new paradigm of environment: “In mezzo alla città di cemento e asfalto, Marcovaldo va in cerca della Natura. Ma esiste ancora, la Natura? Quella che egli trova è la vita artificiale(…). L’amore per la natura di Marcovaldo è quello che può nascere solo in un uomo di città”(Calvino, 1963) ["In the middle of the city of cement and asphalt, Marcovaldo goes in search of Nature. But does Nature exist again? What he finds is the artificial life (...). The love for Nature of Marcovaldo is what that can only be born only in a city man "(Calvino, 1963)].

The pure and pristine natural element is hard to find now; the landscape itself is a humanized nature and, to protect it, it means not to deny the artificiality that advances, but it means determine a continuous rebalancing capacity to stem environmental disasters and the loss of identity and heritage.

After this brief theoretical introduction, far from being exhaustive, you can get to an analysis of the CEP Landscape definition. This analysis can help to identify five descriptors of Landscape, each of which it is associated with an action[1]:

“A certain part of the territory, as perceived by people, whose character derives from the natural and / or humans actions and from their interrelationships.”

  • identity – to participate(as perceived by people)

The landscape as an identitarian product of the communities that live in it and pass through it and set of initiatives of belonging and spontaneous aggregation.

  • resource – to manage (“the natural actions“) 

The cultural and natural resources and the set of Governance Good Practices of Ecosystems Services.

  • heritage – to protect (“the humans actions“)

The fragility of exceptionality as unique and at risk of disappearing.

  • transformation – to adapt (“interrelationships“)

Resilient Landscapes, the climate change management and the safety culture that takes the place of the emergency culture.

Each pair here identified will be addressed in four different stages, each of which will be developed both from the theoretical point of view than with projects and case studies at different scales; the survey will be useful to outline considerations and trigger reflections.

About the author:

Catherine Dezio

Catherine Dezio

Catherine Dezio_M.Arch., Ph.D. Cand. Università di Roma La Sapienza (Italy), R. Fell. Politecnico di Milano (Italy)

[1] Each pair of descriptor / action will be subject of articles by this author during the period 2015/2016