This year marks the 50th anniversary of UNESCO's Recommendation concerning the Safeguarding of Beauty and Character of Landscapes and Sites published in 1962 (how different our situation would be today if we had followed those recommendations!). This year is also the 40th anniversary of UNESCO's Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, novel at its time for associating the concepts of nature conservation and the protection of cultural sites in a single document. Further still, in 1992 UNESCO published its Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (thus, celebrating its 20th anniversary). For the first time, cultural landscapes were included in an international text, defining them as "the combined work of nature and man which illustrates human social development and settlements over time."
We celebrate (yes, despite the crisis) that, finally, the end of the traditional dichotomy between nature and culture was recognised internationally, that both concepts are in fact complementary and that cultural identity is closely related to the natural setting in which it develops. A few years earlier, who would have believed that the rice terraces in the Philippines, the sacred Chinese hills or Lebanese cedar trees would be added to the World Heritage List alongside monuments such as the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra or Rome and Mexico City's historic Old Quarters?
But, what are we really celebrating? We're not celebrating the apparition of landscapes; they were always there. We're celebrating the change in how we perceive landscapes, how we think about them. That is the big difference. Landscapes have not emerged like fantastical islands found in children's books. A new view of them has emerged, transforming from one of almost absolute ignorance to seeing them today as a framework for our daily lives and a fundamental part of our cultural and natural heritage. This transformation has progressed rapidly in the last few years; it wasn't always like this. I think that little changed from the development of the first agricultural systems during the Neolithic period to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, despite the fact that Western culture had sacralised Petrarch's Ascent of Mount Ventoux (about which I have my doubts whether or not Petrarch actually climbed said mountain or if his genius invented the episode described years later). Regardless, since the 19th century and due in large measure to the enormous pressure and threats we're subject to, we have been forced to look at landscapes differently, to see them as a fundamental part of our history, our identity and our soul.
Today, in these times of crisis, we should take advantage to advocate a new view of landscapes. It is not only a question of heritage but also living in day-to-day reality. We should also reinvent landscape management solutions based on new lifestyle models, acting at the grassroots level, from society. It represents an opportunity we should not let slip by. To paraphrase Einstein, times of crisis are times of challenges in which the best of each and every one of us flourishes; the worst crisis is not wanting to fight to overcome it. Now is the time to give territorial planning policies a new direction, succeed in having all the affected agents participate, study, educate and train, and not waste any more time on useless theoretical discussions which at times threaten to turn landscapes into a disastrous, catch-all or ragbag term.
We celebrate these anniversaries and occasion, and we should not lose sight that the World Landscape Convention almost saw the light in 2012. It would have been a wonderful anniversary present. Let's take advantage this year and truly celebrate landscapes. Especially, we should ensure that time does not make us lose this new view of landscapes, leading us to a much deeper and more humane dimension, giving landscapes a privileged spot where a place's spirit lives, what was known in Antiquity as Genius loci, and of which man, according to Lawrence Durrell, is nothing more than an extension. Baltasar Gracián, in a beautiful, 17th century text I never tire of citing, said:
"Because, be forewarned that there is a great difference between seeing and looking; he who doesn't understand, doesn't heed: seeing a lot with the eyes matters little if you don't see anything through understanding, nor does it count to see without noting. Well-ventured was he who said that the best book in the world was the world itself, closed when it is open the most; ‘taut skins,' that is, written parchments, is what the greatest of wise men called those skies, illuminated by lights instead of traits and with stars for letters. It is easy to understand those brilliant characters, no matter how much some call them troubling enigmas. I have difficulty in reading and understanding what happens under roofs, because everything is coded and human hearts are sealed and inscrutable; I ensure you that even the best reader is lost. And, another thing, if you don't have the counter-code well studied and learnt, you will find yourselves lost without being able to read a word, not a letter, trait or even an accent."*
Little more can be added to these wise words other than what Massimo Venturi explains in more contemporary language in his Percepire paesaggi-La potenza dello sguardo. I'm left with the hope that these difficult moments are the best time to light the spark of human genius to reinvent new values and landscapes.
President of the International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes (ICOMOS)
*Gracián, Baltasar (1657). El criticon: tercera parte, en el invierno de la vejez. Madrid: Pablo de Val, p. 86-87.
English version: The Critick. Written originally in Spanish by Lorenzo Gracian one of the best wits of Spain and translated into English by sir Paul Rycaut. Esq. (Londres, 1681).