Geography and Literature

Lorenzo Bagnoli (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)

Geography and literature have always been in an in-depth and fruitful dialogue, which has from time to time been based on different reference paradigms.

Simplifying a very complex topic, the role that geographers have attributed to literary sources can be traditionally traced back to objective documents or subjective narratives (Chevalier, 2000). Until the 1970s, literature, especially the travelogues, was considered by geographers primarily as an objective source of knowledge, as if they were highly reliable historical documents on which it was possible to base the research. Eventually, however, with the emergence of new geographical paradigms based on perception, while not doubting the sincerity of writers, geographers began to consider the literary text from a more subjective perspective, asking themselves new questions about the author, their conception of geography, their values, and even their “interests”. The scholar’s attitude towards literary works and archival sources becomes highly critical “in order to dominate them, rather than be slaves to them” (Sereno, 1981: 168, my translation).

In more recent times, there has been an interesting evolution of the question of the relationship between geography and literature in a postmodern sense, since an almost exclusive importance has been given to literary representation, placing the reference to geographical reality almost in the background. In the light of the most recent geographical research, and above all within the geography of tourism, “the text acquires its own life, it becomes our true field of action” (Minca, 1996, 111, my translation), capable as it is of forcibly modelling reality. The geographer, therefore, no longer even poses the problem of evaluating the reliability of the geographical information contained in a literary text, nor of studying how reality was perceived by the author, but evaluates to what extent the literary work has been able to influence practices and behaviours and therefore in what way reality was “modelled” on the text.

In fact, currently, it is not rare, if there is no or small correspondence between literary description and territory, that the literary imaginary constitutes a force capable of modifying reality. In today’s tourist supply, it is not uncommon to find substantial territorial changes made to make the territory correspond to the image that tourists have created while reading the work. Thus, if, according to the previous paradigm, we proceeded from whether and to what extent the literary works reflect actual territories in their descriptions (a sort of analysis of the adequatio litterarum ad rem), in this one, we proceed instead from whether and how the territory becomes modelled on the literary text (adequatio rei ad litteras) (Bagnoli, 2023).

Classic is the example of the English Lake District, a region of northern England where the flux of tourists was influenced not only by the well-known revolutionary events of the late eighteenth century, which had “hijacked” English travellers from the international tourism of the Grand Tour to one internal but also and above all by the literary production of the English poet W. Wordsworth (1770-1850). However, in addition to “creating an intellectual climate conducive to a new kind of tourism, [Wordsworth] also indicated the places tourists should visit [...]: distant places such as Salisbury Plain and the Quantocks in the South, and the interior of the Hebrides in the North, but he draws mainly from the Lake District”, which he knew well having lived there for a long time. “And he did it in two ways; first speaking of these places in his verse, and then with the authority of one of the most popular guides to the Lakeland of the nineteenth century”, first published in 1809 and subsequently in 1822, 1823 and 1835 (Newby 1989, 264, my translation). The extraordinary success of these guides with the public, together with the construction of a railway line linking the region to the industrial cities of Lancaster and Carlisle in 1847, transformed the Lake District into a fully-fledged tourist region, so much so that in 1907, tourists reached half a million units.

It is crucial to remember that the construction of a region’s tourist image is not built by literature “once and for all”. In this regard, it is possible to think about the evolution of the tourist image of the Alps conveyed by European literary production: from the first reports of scientific expeditions in the eighteenth century to the novels of Romanticism, from the strongly political articles of the period between the two wars to the ecologically committed literature of the last decades. It will emerge how the entire evolution of mountain tourism has been closely linked to the dissemination of literary works, which had as their primary aim not only that of presenting the region in the ways and forms corresponding to the tourist trends of the moment, but also of creating and launching new ones within the tourist market, almost always with great success (Bagnoli, 2022).

Another very interesting postmodern approach linking geography and literature is what is commonly called the “geopoetics”. The word geopoetics was coined in 1979 by the Scottish K. White and became official in 1989 when the same author founded the “Institut International de Géopoétique”, which still exists ( However, in the following decades, like many other words relating to scientific disciplines or branches of them, the word geopoetics evolved rapidly in different directions and today it is almost impossible to indicate a single and precise definition. Federico Italiano published in 2009 a very interesting and exhaustive book on his idea of geopoetics, which we will refer here. This researcher proposes that an author’s geopoetics should be understood as “his territorial intelligence, his imaginative and poietic faculty of elaborating and building the world, his peculiar identification and representation of the nexus, of the human being / earth relationship”. A few pages later, he also specifies that geopoetics concerns “that particular conscience géographique, that territorial knowledge which is knowledge of the world, of nature and its processes, geography perceived as much as thought, identification of the human being / earth nexus, as it emerges in the specificity of the literary text” (Italiano 2009, 38-39, my translation).

It follows that the notion of geopoetics, as proposed by this author, is closely connected to the postmodern concept of landscape, as it appears in art. 1 § a of the European Landscape Convention adopted in 2000 in Florence by the Council of Europe. In the geopoetic approach, the object of research is again no longer the territory, as in modern geography, but undoubtedly the mental places, to which the notion of conscience géographique also seems to refer. In other words, when studying a text using a geopoetic approach, one must forget the territory and focus on the landscape.

From a methodological point of view, in default of extended geographical descriptions, the researcher using the geopoetic procedure must analyse a literary text in order to linguistically identify the single aspects of the geo-ecosystem (the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere, the pedosphere, the lithosphere, the anthroposphere etc.), bearing in mind the need to consider the whole text as a whole, and on the basis of these “spheres” rebuild the author’s conscience géographique (Italiano & Mastronunzio, 2011).

Therefore, literary tourist services achieved on the geopoetic approach will provide the tourists with a literary landscape and not with a literary territory. In other words, geopoetics reminds us that, even in literary tourism, it is necessary to return to the contemplation of the text in order to deeply understand the artistic message and that the visit to the real places of inspiration must remain instrumental to this message (Capecchi, 2021).

Besides the recent success of these new postmodern approaches (Saunders, 2010), many geographers still have strong hesitations in abandoning any reference to reality, as Massimo Quaini clearly argued when he wrote: “postmodern cultural geography [...] means enclosing geography within the exclusive horizon of symbolic representations [...] with the final result of excluding any possibility of analytical or realistic deciphering of the landscape” (Quaini, 2006, 91, my translation), so that “this literary vocation of geography can be insufficient and dangerous if it is understood according to a model of literature which favours fiction rather than fact” (Quaini, 2011, 9, my translation).

The recognition of a useful applicative function for the study and management of the territory attributed by geographers to literary sources thus constitutes an orientation that has never been abandoned and this takes on new aspects of particular interest for literary tourism (Gavinelli & Marengo, 2021). In the event or not that there is a marked correspondence between the geography contained in a literary work and the reality, the work itself can become a useful tool for a new narration of the territory (storytelling) that meets the tourist taste of the new tourists and which leads to the creation of an offer characterised by the three “Ls” – landscape, leisure and learning – particularly appreciated today.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Bagnoli, L. (2023). Geography and Literature. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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