Having worked in the Mediterranean area for over thirty years, art historian Nigel McGilchrist has taught for several universities and now lectures freelance. He has worked for the Italian Ministry of Arts on wall painting conservation and is the author of the 20-volume series, McGilchrist’s Greek Islands. Here, Nigel shares his thoughts on the experience of looking at art in 2019, a piece written exclusively for Art Pursuits Abroad.
The world changes – and we change in it. But the art we love thankfully stays pretty much the same. The question for us is, “How can we best enjoy the experience of looking at this art, given the sheer pressure of numbers that are now converging on the cultural centres of Europe?”
On a recent visit to Vienna, I thought it might be nice to sit for a while in the Café Sacher and have a coffee and a sachertorte – something which I have enjoyed on previous visits there. When I arrived at the café there were corrals outside the entrance and a long line of rather unhappy-looking visitors waiting, for perhaps as much as half an hour under the light rain, for a chance to get a table. The sight instantly curdled my desire for the Viennese experience. Who wants to do a sort of open air security-line, just to have a coffee and a cake? Who wants to do the same, complete with metal-detectors and blazing sun to stand in, in order to enter St. Peter’s in Rome? When I lived in Rome in the seventies and eighties, before Christmas you could even park your car on the edge of the piazza and just wander inside to join an evening Vespers. I am not longing for the days when the Piazza S. Pietro was a car-park, obviously; but there is a serious point here. When does the cumbersomeness of the process of visiting outweigh the pleasure actually derived from the visit? Are we really in a frame of mind to enjoy art, when we are subjected to airport treatment before being allowed access to it? At what point do we say ‘basta!’?
I remember quite the opposite experience on an Art Pursuits tour of the Marche area of Italy three years ago. We were staying in Recanati and making sorties out from there, many of them directed towards the masterpieces of that consummate, but little understood artist, Lorenzo Lotto. We wound through the rolling countryside to the small village of Monte San Giusto to see one painting alone: Lotto’s magnificent Crucifixion above the altar of the church of Santa Maria della Pietà. It felt like a pilgrimage. The village was going about its business. We entered the church: there was not a soul inside. We sat down. I must have said a few words: others contributed much better observations and then a wonderful silence came over us all. Not one of our group was not profoundly moved by the painting, I believe; and the silence, the lack of any sense of pressure, the unexpectedness of it all, the force of Lotto’s design and the richness of his colours, had all combined to transfigure our morning. Our customary coffee-break which followed became a wonderful opportunity for exchanging thoughts on that moment of shared transfiguration. Afterwards we visited a private garden from the 18th century nearby: just ourselves, the plants, the humorous fountains and a rather dilapidated villa. It was the perfect complement to the intensity of the visit earlier that morning.
I believe that to enter into this sort of special closeness to art and architecture was precisely what the founder of Art Pursuits, Joachim Strupp, desired when he set up the company. It is what Art Pursuits, particularly under his guidance, has always done supremely well. It has offered an intimacy with place and art, which was always more profound than it was wide. Just because Florence or Vienna or Granada are often over packed with visitors is not a reason not to visit them anymore or offer tours there. The question is how and when and in what way the tour is organised – what it includes and what it leaves out. On a trip to Florence this autumn with Art Pursuits at the height of the now much-extended tourist season, yes, we had to navigate some serious lava-flows of tour-groups; but we also had wonderful oasis-like moments in the city. As we sat in the Refectory of Sant’Appollonia contemplating Andrea del Castagno’s strange and terrifying Last Supper, we were quite undisturbed, just one-to-one with the painting and – it almost felt – with the artist himself. But we could hear in the distance the baying, jostling, flag-waving crowds in a nearby street standing noisily in line to see the David in the Accademia, and far beyond them the lines waiting their turn to enter the Duomo.
All this is a new and bewildering phenomenon; but it is a reality which is here to stay, and our job, I believe, is to design tours that take cognisance of it and explore the quieter and less obvious things which, in the end, move us and reveal far more to us precisely because we are not seeing them through a soup of disturbance and pullulating heads and feet. The great art centers still have quantities of fascinating things which are simply passed by on most tours.
Art Pursuits has always offered things that were a little out of the ordinary – tours that are small in scale, simple in design, rich in detail, and without a lot of unnecessary glitz. As the pressure of numbers and crowds mounts on the famous, classic sites of our continent, this choice of the path less trodden makes more and more sense. I don’t think it is heresy after all to say that greater joy lies in the discovery of a single painting in a small church in the hills of the Marche, than in being buffeted in the Accademia in Florence before Michelangelo’s David. And that joy is our business.