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Italian fashion is important, even on slopes as shown in this 1920s photograph in Sestriere

How Skiing Became Famous in Italy in the 19th Century

Any skier from a century ago would be shocked at the remarkable transformation of their sport. First popularized in the 20th century, archaeological evidence of skiing dates back to 6,000 B.C. and for the vast majority of their history, skis were a utilitarian means of moving around in snowy environments.

Socially elite skiers first took to the Alps in the last decades of the 19th century, seeking diversions during prolonged winter stays at Alpine resorts. Skiing was one winter leisure option among many, including ice skating and tobogganing. In the decades before World War II, skiing symbolized luxury. The sport required one to have the means to get to and usually stay for weeks, in remote Alpine locations. These skiers were affluent, but in this era before ski lifts (which first appeared in the late 1920s), it proved difficult to make skiing popular with the middle-class; thus, the first skiing areas in Italy were not the carefully managed spaces so common today.

As skiing took root in the Alps, however, the practice of the sport changed to accord with the region’s steep terrain, which granted skiers the ecstasy of speed. In the years preceding the Second World War, the rising visibility of the sport spread to the masses. The sports sections of Italian newspapers fed the increasingly ravenous interest in skiing and celebrity racers and spectators by the thousands turned out for Alpine competitions. As enthusiasts flocked to the sport, villages that hosted winter tourists began to cater to the burgeoning sport and the first ski lifts and rope pulls appeared.

It was really the Italian village of Sestriere that launched this new era. As Alpine skiing became synonymous with the downhill, Italian developers recognized an opportunity to construct a resort solely to serve the needs of skiers. The head of Fiat Automobiles, Giovanni Agnelli, exploited his connections to create Sestriere, the first single-purpose ski resort located about 30 miles west of Turin. The government extended the autostrada and built a train station to deliver tourists directly to Sestriere.

There, skiers laid eye upon two stunning modernist hotel towers and a lift network that provided access to 74 downhill runs by 1938. Every aspect of the development at Sestriere was oriented towards skiers, while developers benefited from a new economic model. From arrival to departure, every aspect of the skiers’ experience, from accommodations and entertainment to lift tickets and ski instruction was integrated, turning the resort into a skier’s paradise. In 2006, the Alpine events of the Turin Winter Olympics were held there.

This integrated model of development proved immensely profitable and became the blueprint for the development of the Alps, particularly after World War II. As European economies recovered in the 1950s and 60s, leisure time came to be viewed not as a luxury, but as a right for everyone. Skiing was no longer a sport exclusively for the wealthy.

Those in the industry called snow “white gold” and it had to be managed carefully to ensure the safety of skiers and the profitability of the industry. Resort operators engineered the landscape to prevent avalanches, protecting human life as well as their own capital investments. Yet, with all of this environmental development, skiing remained dependent on nature. The postwar Italian model of single-purpose resorts concentrated skiers within specific spaces that were ideally suited for the sport, but also permitted dramatic manipulations of the mountain landscape. It is the model that now defines the industry and is used throughout the world.