The Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site Includes Some of its Most Beautiful Mountains.

Why Have These Mountains Become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

«I grew up in the Dolomites; then, after more than 1,000 climbing tours at home, I climbed on thousands of mountains around the world. My conclusion is: no mountain can compete with the beauty of the Dolomites. The Dolomites are distinctive: in their variety of morphology, geology and especially in the type of landscape, which is characterised by the exciting contrast between flat and gentle fields and vertical cliffs. Not only in my opinion does the rocky landscape between Brenta and Udine, Sas de Putia and Pordenone offer the most beautiful mountains in the world, many other experts share this opinion too [...]».

This excerpt is from the letter that worldwide known mountaineer Reinhold Messner wrote in support to the Dolomites nomination in 2007.

In June 2009, nine areas of the Dolomites, not bordering directly but to be intended as a harmonious whole, have been designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, as exceptional evidence of a mountainous region unique in the world.

These areas are: 1) PelmoCroda da Lago; 2) Marmolada; 3) Pale di San Martino and San Lucano, Dolomiti Bellunesi and Vette Feltrine; 4) Dolomiti Friulane and Oltrepiave; 5) Dolomiti Settentrionali (Northern Dolomites, falling mostly within the Dolomiti d'Ampezzo Regional Park); 6) Puez-Odle (also covered by the Puez-Odle/Geisler Natural Park); 7) Sciliar/Schlern - Catinaccio/Rosengarten-Latemar (here there is one of the five Natural Parks of South Tyrol Sciliar/Schlern - Catinaccio/Rosengarten); 8) Bletterbach (in the vicinity of this important geologic site is the Monte Corno-Trudnerhorn Natural Park too) and, lastly, 9) Dolomiti di Brenta.

As it can be noticed from the list above, on a practical level the UNESCO sites had to be created on areas that were already under clear protective measures (mostly National Parks, like the Dolomiti Bellunesi, and Regional Parks, such as those mentioned above, but also the Adamello-Brenta and Paneveggio - Pale di San Martino in Trentino; the Dolomiti Friulane, in Friuli; the Ampezzo Dolomites in Veneto and the Fanes-Sennes-Braies, also in South Tyrol); thus the nine groups occupy a surface of about 142,000 ha, but could not include celebrated massifs such as – for instance – Sella (3,152 m) or Sassolungo/Langkofel (3,181 m), despite being among the highest in the Dolomites and representative of the geology and landscape of the Dolomites region.

In fact, it has to be noticed that the geography of the Dolomites is all but an easy subject, and if anything, in that respect, the UNESCO designation has made the issue even more complicated – but this is nothing really to worry about if you are just visiting the area.

The Dolomites have thus been designated by the UNESCO a ‘Serial Heritage Site’, as even though they are articulated and complex, they represent a unified whole – albeit dislocated and complex – from a geographic, geologic and geo-morphologic point of view – as well as in terms of the landscape.

The various Dolomite ranges represent a combination of exceptional geological features and landscapes, characterised by extraordinary representativeness and high levels of protection, and they are linked through an extensive genetic and aesthetic network of relations.

The nine mountain systems making up this extraordinary fossil archipelago are contained within five provinces (Belluno, Trento, Bolzano/Bozen, Udine and Pordenone) and three regions (Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige/Südtirol and Friuli-Venezia Giulia), thus covering an area of approximately 142,000 hectares, in which four different and officially recognized languages are spoken (Italian, German, Ladin and Friulano). These institutions are characterized by a complex and varied administrative framework, as their background and position within the context of European history has been very different, thus making the administration of this ‘serial heritage site’ quite a challenging task.

What Makes the Dolomites Unique in the World?

Geologist pioneers were the first to be captivated by the beauty of the Dolomites, and their writings and subsequent paintings and photographies further underlined the aesthetic appeal of these peaks.

In fact, the exceptional peculiarities of these mountains – both geological and in terms of the landscape – are linked by a rich network of genetic and aesthetic relationships.

The great differences in colors are caused by the contrasts between the bare, pale-coloured rock surfaces with the pastures and forests below.

These mountains rise as peaks with intervening ravines, in some places standing isolated but in other cases forming sweeping panoramas. Some of the rock cliffs here rise for more than 1,500 metres, and are among the tallest calcareous walls (that is, limestone) found anywhere in the world. The distinctive scenery of the Dolomites has become the archetype of Dolomite landscape.

From a geo-morphological point of view, the Dolomites are an area of international acclaim for their geomorphology, and a classic site for observing the development of mountains in Dolomite limestone.

The area displays a wide range of morphologic landforms related to erosion, tectonics and glaciations; the quantity and concentration of carbonate and limestone formations is extraordinary on a global level, and includes peaks, towers, pinnacles and some of the highest vertical rock walls in the world.

The geological values are also of exceptional importance at international level (for more on this, refer to the geologic history of the Dolomites), as expressed especially in the Carbonate platforms from the Mesozoic era – “fossilized atolls” in particular – for the evidence they provide in terms of the evolution of bio-constructors from the Permian to the Triassic period, as well as the preservation of the relationship bewteen the reefs these organisms constructed and the surrounding basins.

In fact, the Dolomites also include several important type-sections of international relevance for the stratigraphy of the Triassic period.

Altogether, the scientific values of the ‘Serial Heritage Site’ are supported by the evidence of a long history of study and recognition at a global level. Taken as a whole, the complex combination of geologic and geo-morphologic values thus creates an asset of global relevance.

The Integrity of the Dolomites

The nine component parts that make up the Dolomites UNESCO Serial Heritage Site all include areas that are essential for maintaining the beauty of the site as a whole, and all or most of the key inter-related and interdependent earth science elements in their natural relationships are thus represented.

The ‘Serial Heritage Site’ includes parts of a National Park, several Regional and Natural Parks, Nature 2000 sites and Natural Monuments. Buffer zones have been designed for each of the nine component parts to help to protect them from threats from outside their boundaries. The natural landscapes and processes that are essential for maintaining the sites' value and integrity are in a good state of conservation and largely unaffected by development, thus stating the outstanding universal value of the Dolomites UNESCO site.

The Sublime Beauty of the ‘Pale Mountains’

Why are the Dolomites so beautiful? What is the secret of their extraordinary appeal? But, most importantly, have they always been seen that way?

The Dolomites have always had an enormous impact on the imagination of all those who have seen them. The imposing nature of these stone giants has inspired the people inhabiting them from Prehistoric times, to the extent that these rocks have become an essential part of daily life. Furthermore, their peaks are the carriers of an epic that sinks its roots so deeply to the point of becoming a mainstay of cultural identity for those living at their foot. This is reflected in the high number of myths, tales and legend which are present in the area. Quite understandably, the sense of inhabiting such an extreme environment engenders a common feeling among the people who call this place their home, and who populate the high reaches of these mountains – but this hasnt always been the case.

In fact, it is only after the Dolomites were ‘discovered’ by science – when the romantic travelers, transfixed by them, recognized them as the embodiment of those ideals that landscape painters had hitherto only imagined – that the perception of these rock giants shifted. Ever since, no one has remained immune to the extraordinary fascination of the Dolomites, to the extent that they are now universally acclaimed by many as the most beautiful mountains on Earth.

It was in Edmund Burkes seminal work, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757, that the key word for understanding the aesthetic of the Dolomites – the sublime – first appeared:

«No work of art can be great and sublime as it deceives; to be otherwise is the prerogative of Nature only».

Aesthetic Importance

The Dolomites, in fact, are to be considered a global reference point for the aesthetic of the sublime. For this branch of philosophy, developed in the years immediately preceding the discovery of these majestic mountains, the lunar peaks of the Dolomites became a model of fundamental importance, and therefore contributed to the definition of a new, modern concept of natural beauty.

The very first pictures of the Dolomites were in fact not paintings or portraits, but descriptions; words that told of the extraordinary visions and powerful emotions that invaded and gripped the mind – with an almost inescapable force – of those who saw them, but also the first scientific reports and early travelers accounts. The first words used to convey the characteristics of these mountains, then, corresponded exactly to the categories of the sublime.

These categories were: verticality, grandeur, monumentality, tormented forms, essential purity, intense colours, amazement, mystical asceticism and transcendence.

The theme of the sublime is very important, as it defines in fact an aesthetic set of categories (listed above) directly referring to Nature. The famous Red Book by John Murray, dating back to 1837 (considered the first known travel guide to the Dolomites in English), uses precisely the adjective sublime to define the landscape he saw: Altogether they (the Dolomites) impart an air of novelty and sublime grandeur to the scene, which can only be appreciated by those who have viewed it.

Scenic Values

The original landscape analysis method developed specifically in relation to the nomination and considered to be innovative by the advisory bodies of the UNESCO, highlighed the fact that the Dolomites also represent a universal archetype of a specific type of mountain landscape that takes its name from them: the Dolomite landscape.

There are several key characters to this type of landscape, represented first of all by an extremely complex and articulated topography, distinguished by the frequency of separate, isolated and juxtaposed mountain groups, set side by side in a particularly restricted environment; secondly, there is an unusual variety of forms that characterize these massifs vertically (cliffs, needles, spires, pinnacles, towers and jagged peaks) and horizontally (ledges, roofs, plates, crags, plateaus, summit tablelands).

However, the Dolomites are, above all, particularly renowned for the exceptional variety of colours of their rocks and the extraordinary contrast between the soft, green lines of the meadows and pastures and the sudden vertical rise of dramatic peaks, which spring up unexpectedly and appear completely barren.

Futhermore, the possibility of classifying these carbonate buildingsinto clearly recognizable geometric figures and precise volumetric shapes (prisms, parallelepiped, cones) led to an interpretation of these mountains almost as artificial structures, rather than simple natural creations.

The imaginative vision of the first inhabitants led them to compare the Dolomites to the vestiges of a legendary epic world, thus projecting the region into a mythical dimension.

More recently, the gigantic nature that dominates these ‘architectures’, the fantastic relationships in scale and their majestic proportions prompted the intellectual Romantics to imagine them as the ruins of a mythical city inhabited by Titans, while more recently the architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965) addressed them as “les plus belles constructions du monde” – the most beautiful constructions on earth.

The evocative power of their outlook is such, that it prompted their image to be projected and recognized also in other mountains of Europe, and the evocative force of their name extended therefore to other mountain ranges elsewhere. There are indeed dolomite mountains in France, Austria, Switzerland, in the South of Italy and Sicily, as well as in Norway and Slovenia.

Landscape Structure

The Dolomite landscape can be broken down into a series of main landscape units to identify the more common, recognisable elementary structures of all the region. These landscapes units are the outcome of genetic and aesthetic relations – namely the result of close links between geological origin, morphological structures and the nature of the vegetation.

The typical morphological components, representative of the whole of the Dolomite landscape, are identified according to a vertical sequence, which from the bottom up comprises four bands:

- 1) an extensive, gently undulating bedrock of polygenetic origin;

- 2) imposing mantles of detritus surrounding the bases of the carbonatic structures;

- 3) horizontal structural elements interrupting the rock faces, creating vast terraces and strong colour contrasts;

- 4) perfectly vertical, great white rock masses, with exceptionally varied shapes, rising unexpectedly from the ground.

These morphological characteristics are linked to the vegetation, together with other landscape values such as biodiversity, variety of natural habitats and richness of plant associations, fluctuations in density and colour according to the seasons.

Since the nominated  Dolomites UNESCO ‘Serial Heritage Site’ is in high mountain territory, the vegetation is concentrated into two bands corresponding to the climatic zones close to and above the altitude of the tree line. The former corresponds to the conifer forests and subalpine shrublands; the latter to the Alpine grasslands and the various plant associations of the crags and scree, many of which are exclusive to the Dolomites. The overall structure of the landscape is however dynamic, and it depends on both natural and human factors.

Natural Phenomena

«Full opposite to us rose a colossal rock, one of the most prestigious monuments of Nature's forces. Its lower portion rose in diminishing stories like the Tower of Babel of old Bible pictures. Above it was a perfect precipice, an upright rock, the top of which was 4,000 to 4,500 feet above our heads. Behind this gigantic keep a vast mountain fortress stretched out its long lines of turrets and bastions. But as we approached its base the great tower rose alone and unsupported, and the boldness of its outline became almost incredible [...]; it combines to a great extent the noble solidity of the Swiss peak with the peculiar upright structure which gives Dolomite its strange resemblance to human architecture. [...] On our left was a second massive rock castle, the Cima di Brenta, connected with the Cima Tosa by the Fulmini (sic) di Brenta, a long line of flame-like pinnacles of the strangest shapes, some of them seeming to bulge near the top like a Russian steeple».

These words were written by D. W. Freshfield, one of the Englishmen pioneering travels in the Dolomites at the end of the 19th century (contained in The Italian Alps, 1875).

The visual excitement is amplified by a natural phenomenon peculiar to these mountains alone, the so-called enrosadira, due to the specific structure and composition of the Dolomite rock: an occurrence which takes its name from a Ladin word (enrosadira: becoming pink), used to designate the way these rocks react – in a unique and spectacular way – to daily variations of light.

While the colours of sunrise and sunset ignite the rocks with deep and warm hues, ranging from orange to red to purple, at twilight they become an ever softer pink, while in the moonlight these mountains take a pale and evanescent aspect.

Moonlight especially lends the Dolomites a cold, ghostly and almost otherworldly look that gave rise to their Italian name, I Monti Pallidi– the ‘Pale Mountains’.

Additionally, it has to be noted that, even though the Dolomites do not possess the highest peaks of the Alps, the widest glaciers or the most extensive areas of wilderness, they represent nonetheless the only region in the world where pale Dolomite rocks are associated with dark volcanic rocks (of volcanic nature).

The Dolomites region is also distinguished by an unusual concentration of peaks – around one hundred – exceeding 3,000 metres, and a remarkable large number of small glaciers and perennial snows at relatively low altitudes.

A series of rock cliffs of incredible vertical height – from 800 to 1,600 metres – together with exceptionally deep canyons (500 to 1,500 metres) offer a morphological diversity that further enriches the natural beauty of the Dolomites.

The Heritage Site: a Few Notes on the Governance

Management of this ‘Serial Heritage Site’ was extensively debated in the course of the nomination process for the  Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the work of institutions such as Regions and Provinces has played a vital role, representing a common effort to achieve the inclusion of the Dolomites in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

This had as a final goal not only to present the territory of the Dolomites as a ‘unicum’ – a unique and unified landscape of its kind, with its specific geographical, geo-morphological and landscape peculiarities – but was also aimed at establishing consistent, uniform procedures for managing and administering the ‘serial heritage site’ as a whole, whilst taking into account the skills and managerial autonomy of each local government.

The Dolomites UNESCO Foundation that was established as a result of this process by the Provinces and Regions involved in the recognition had as an objective to ensure the coordinated management of this articulated – and therefore unusual – site, in an area that was already governed by a range of different kinds of institutions at quite different levels.

There are significant differences, for example, between the workings of the autonomous provinces of Trento and Bolzano/Bozen, the ‘special status’ of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and the ‘ordinary status’ of the province of Belluno, which has no degree of autonomy and thus depends entirely – from an administrative point of view – on the Veneto region.

With a view to harmonizing and standardising the different policies for the management of the Dolomites UNESCO ‘Serial Heritage Site’, the Foundation – as a single contact for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee – will thus ensure a consistency between the overall management strategy and the maintaning of the universal values of the Heritage Site through its triennal reports.

With this in mind, the governance strategy of the Dolomites UNESCO ‘Serial Heritage Site’ focuses on three main aspects: conservation, communication and promotion; a coordination plan for local management will be developed around these points.

The main themes – as to how to plan and manage every single activity within the various mountain system making up the ‘serial heritage site’ – will then be subdivided and articulated into the related objectives, involving: conservation of the landscape and of its geological heritage; management of tourism flows, paying particular attention to where these have reached or exceeded limits of toleration; communication, information and training, with respect to the values of the heritage site.

A final but very important goal is to work towards an ever more sustainable development, through fostering environmental education and scientific research.

This strategy is aimed to create a network of cooperation between local areas, territories and institutions already responsible for the management of the Dolomites, in order to ensure the effectiveness and adequacy of the protection measures being implemented, and to guarantee that the transmission of their aesthetic, landscape and geological/geo-morphological values are passed on to the future.

Land use for agriculture and animal farming still constitutes an important factor for the economy of the region, and the presence of dairy pens (the so-called ‘malghe’) and pastures reinforces the specific image that these places have in the collective imagination.

In fact, the ‘working aspect’ of the Dolomites – far from being a problem – has to be taken into account, for it to actively contribute in a crucial way to the protection of the land.

The Dolomites are a high-altitude area whose morphology and environments represent a natural limit to the intensive exploitation of resources by man, as most of these mountains remain inaccessible for long periods of the year (usually November to May) due to adverse climatic conditions.

The activities that need to be carefully monitored are the pressures on the ecosystems, the exploitation of natural resources and inappropriate, non-productive uses of the land.

The use of this area, therefore, for agricultural (crops), forestry (timber) and animal farming (pastures) practices is thus an important characteristic of the local economy. However, this types of uses have to be closely regulated, even though – as a matter of fact – these activities only concern some sections of the buffer zones within the serial heritage site.

The Dolomites: a Timeless Wonder

The Dolomites seem to have existed since time immemorial; nevertheless, in the eyes of the world, their history begins with their ‘discovery’ – something that only happened towards the end of 18th century, at a crucial time for the development of science and Western culture.

Two key dates can be connected to their scientific ‘discovery’, and are fundamental for understanding the cultural history of the Dolomites: the first is 1789 – the year in which Déodat de Dolomieu identified for the first time the peculiarities of the mineral which makes up these mountains, and that eventually gave them their name.

Dolomieu himself wrote, in a letter dated 1791: «[...] These mountains, whose peaks rise above the region of the clouds, [...] are made up of different species of rock. The bases, the thickness of which varies, incline differently, bringing them closer or further away from a vertical position, nevertheless directed towards a central point. Their prolongation leads to the formation of these sharp points, broken crests and jagged angles that characterise and indicate from afar mountains known as primitive».

It was only several years later, in fact, that Nicolas de Saussure (son of Horace Benedict), who had analyzed these rocks in the laboratory, eventually decided to name the new mineral compound dolomite in honor of his discoverer; the mountains were then to be called also Dolomites.

The second important date is 1822 – the year in which Leopold von Buch spent a long time in these mountains in order to study their ‘strange’ stratigraphy (i.e. the rock layers), also summoning his friend Alexander von Humboldt, who was then respected as one of the best living scholars of his time.

The relationships and the journals, reports and accounts of these eminent scientists were important – not just from a scientific point of view. These men, as well as being eminent scientists, were also prominent cultural figures in the first half of 19th century Europe.

As is evident from their writings, and thanks to their universal spirit, these cultured men were the first to grasp the intrinsic beauty and importance of the geological and geo-morphological peculiarities of the Dolomites, so responsible for their intrinsic beauty – and this is witnessed in their body of work.

In fact, before the aesthetic of the Romantics took hold – a view so important for the definition of the concept of ‘natural beauty’ as we intend it still today in the western world – the peaks of the Dolomites had never really been acknowleged as something 'beautiful'; actually, they were only minimally considered, although often visited by painters and other cultured figures.

Thus the aesthetic relevance of the Dolomites only began to be recognized with the dissemination of scientific ‘discovery’, and was further popularised over the following years with the publication of the first travel books – which were a new, developing genre at the time. This passage is marked by two important events.

The first date to remember, in this respect, is 1837, the publishing year of the first two guidebooks specifically aimed at travellers and explorers in the region: “Murray’s Handbook”, which was printed in London by John Murray, and “Reisenhandbuch durch Tirol” – written by Beda Weber – which saw the light in Germany around that same time.

In these travel manuals, the ‘Dolomite Mountains’ – as they were then called – were described as unequalled natural beauties, thus attracting the attention of the first English and German travellers.

The second important date is 1864, the year in which the travel log entitled precisely “The Dolomite Mountains” – by the Englishmen Josiah Gilbert and G. C. Churchill – was published.

The immense success of this popular book presented these mountains for the first time to a larger public as The Dolomites, thus extending the name of the mineral to include the whole region.

Alpine and mountaineering literature also played its part: the guide “The Eastern Alps” – published by John Ball in 1868 – contributed considerably to spread and make known the name Dolomites to designate this part of the Alpine chain – not just in common use but also as a universally adopted term in official cartography.

The Dolomites can therefore be interpreted at their best by following two streaks: the scientific and the aesthetic; their inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List was deliberately proposed for geological-geomorphological and aesthetic-landscape values simultaneously.

As the journey of their discovery demonstrates, the two criteria to describe these magnificent mountains are indissolubly linked; after all, right from the beginning, it was the inseparable connection between scientific interest and love of natural beauty – cherished by those who first ‘discovered’ them – which led the Dolomites to rank amongst the absolute natural wonders of our planet.

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