Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Travelogue: On crowds, by a distinguished member thereof

It is no secret that many popular tourist destinations can be very crowded, especially in Italy.

We certainly found that to be the case, but I'm reluctant to complain too much about it because I was, after all, a member of the crowd myself.  It calls to mind an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy says something like, "Everybody says there're too many people, but nobody wants to leave."  That really gets to the heart of the matter.  How do I get rid of all these annoying crowds without eliminating myself in the bargain?

There is something heartening in the fact that crowds are trying to get in to see The Birth of Venus or the Sistine ceiling.  How would we feel if the churches and museums were almost  empty and catering only to the cognoscienti?  Or if the crowds were eliminated by charging admission at churches, or raising admission to put the great national collections out of the reach of the average tourist?  Yes, one can get annoyed at the occasional vulgar neighbor obviously and noisily checking one more famous painting off the bucket list.  But honestly, even those of us with refined tastes and the most exquisite sensibilities do pretty much the same thing.

I noticed, in the museums, that the "bunching" of spectators is exacerbated by two things, tour groups and audio tours.  Both tend to put people pretty consistently in front of the "war horses."  But tours and audio guides, however they may annoy those of us who don't think we need them, are surely part of that democratic notion that art should be available to people at all stages of education and appreciation.

I remember back in Boston, in the seventies, a local museum put on an exhibition of Chardin's genre paintings.  Even with a few college art courses, I wasn't much taken with what I knew of Chardin.  But a glowing review in the Boston Globe motivated me to take a look, and the audio guide really opened my eyes to much of what I missed or would never have considered on my own.

And there is also the fact that the bunching of crowds creates opportunities elsewhere.  I was genuinely disappointed by the crowd shown above, in front of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.  I was also disappointed by the fact that it was behind glass, a liability it shares with many uber-popular works that might be targets for the disturbed.  But on the opposite side of the room was an exquisite Botticelli Annunciation, alone and ignored by almost everyone.  I might have passed it by had the room been empty and I had been able to go right up and spend time with The Birth of Venus and Primavera.

So at times I joined the Crowd, straining to get close to those A-list cultural artifacts that are the object of this kind of tourism.  But I could also let the Crowd repel me toward those other items, honored and equally set apart, whose lack of "celebrity status" has nothing to do with their beauty or power to invoke the transcendent.

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