Julian Baker reviews Peter Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2013).
Today, the bald peak of Mont Ventoux rises white and treeless above the vineyards of Provence, an hour’s drive northeast of Avignon, capped with a weather station and the goal of visiting cyclists. In 1336 the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch climbed to this summit and contemplated the view. Later, after a reviving supper at his inn, he wrote out his experiences. For five hundred years readers paid little notice to the climb. Rather, Petrarch became famous for his lyrical sonnets and rediscovery of Cicero’s letters. Then, in 1860, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt identified Petrarch, for his inclination to climb a peak for the aesthetic fulfillment of the scenery, as the first “modern man”.
This overlap of ascent, identity and modernity is the subject of Peter Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man. Through a selective history of mountaineering, Hansen attempts to explain “a particular strand of modernity in which modern man stands alone on the summit, autonomous from other men and dominant over nature” (page 2). Continue reading Julian’s review here.