Leonardo da Vinci climbed in the Alps and mountains appear in many of his paintings, including the Virgin of the Rocks. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Mountains amaze and delight us, inspiring the human mind to peaks of excitement and curiosity. It seems strange to think that our appetite for the heights is something invented by modern culture. The awe and grandeur of mountain scenery is surely a universal instinct. But historians hold that it is not. Before the 18th century Europeans dreaded mountains. They were seen as ugly raw wildernesses of stone, murderous enemies of cultivated life. Apparently it took the Romantic movement to make mountains seem mysterious in their wildness, tempting in their danger.
This is one area of the imagination where artists seem to have been ahead of the crowd. Some of them were depicting and even exploring the marvellous mountains much earlier. Leonardo da Vinci climbed in the Alps and in his paintings mountains – glimpsed through a rocky cavern in the Virgin of the Rocks or revealed as a ravishing ethereal vista in the Virgin and Child with St Anne – are images of the psyche and the infinite. Another Renaissance artist who had a feel for mountains was Titian – in his paintings the blue shadows of Alpine foothills are seen with acute longing and love. Trees on a hilltop, against a blue sky, and a town overlooking a valley – details such as these make Titian a true lover of wild scenery.
Both these artists came from hill towns. But other artists too found mountains unforgettable. A lot of the time, in Renaissance art, a mountain is just a sharp jagged dry rock. Hermits live in savage mountain wastes. But there is also a sense of the hills as places of fantasy and the unknown. The romantic discovery of mountains was not as sudden as all that, at least in art. Surely there is no more magical celebration of mountains than Giambologna’s statue that personifies the Appenines as a colossal bearded man, a giant whose face is darkly enigmatic. The original mountain man, it has wandered out of those distant yet magnetic, forbidding yet seductive Leonardoesque hills.