On tourism

I’ve just realised it’s been a bit too long since I last posted anything on the old blog! We have both been insanely busy and I simply haven’t taken the time to write anything down. Must do better. Maybe some reflection on the joys and evils of tourism is in order. The Sunday before last, we took a day trip to Fiesole, a picturesque village escape, only twenty minutes by local bus up the hills from hot and busy central Florence. You can hike the whole way up there if you’re feeling particularly energetic! We enjoyed a picnic in the market square, where traders were selling reproductions of vintage Italian posters, locally produced food, hand-carved kitchenware, jewellery, clothes and other curiosities. The Etruscan-Roman archaeological ruins are located a stones throw from the square, which feature the remains of an amphitheatre, bath house and temple.

Fiesole amphitheatre 2
Amphitheatre in Fiesole
Fiesole bath house 2
Bath house ruins, Fiesole

Wandering around with only a handful of other people, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the shade, made for a very relaxing experience. Some canny Italians were enjoying their lunch in the shade of a tree on the cusp of the amphitheatre, which made for the most atmospheric picnic scene ever. I will admit to having serious picnic envy. A group of workmen were setting up what appeared to be a stage at the bottom of the amphitheatre and I made a mental note to search for more information when I got home. It turns out there is a full summer of events scheduled in the ruins. I’m assuming if they are authorised by the custodians of Fiesole’s archaeological treasures, then the risks to the ruins are minimal! We might return some balmy evening to enjoy the music, theatre or film on offer. Alongside the ruins there is an archaeological museum, full of artefacts recovered from the site, housed on the ground floor, as well as a collection of artefacts from Etruria and ancient Greece which are on the upper level. There is a captivating view from upstairs, overlooking the ruins, framed by hills dotted with cypress trees and lush greenery. It’s hard to believe tourist-clogged Florence is so close to this oasis of tranquillity.

Our ticket also covered entry to the Museo Bandini, so, after more food in the square and obligatory gelato, we decided to fill the Christian-art-shaped void within, no doubt caused by looking at all that heathen archaeology. Being raised Catholic and also schooled in art history is pretty helpful when visiting such places. Mary Magdalene, St. John the Baptist, Judas and the other usual suspects are instantly recognisable. A gallery assistant overheard me explaining the iconography of the paintings to Ollie and gave us an impromptu guided tour of the collection. She pointed out hidden symbols and self portraits by the artists, as well as back stories for so many of the artworks, including their attempted theft and near destruction. It really brought the collection to life and felt like we were getting a sneaky added bonus! Two artworks I particularly loved were Brunelleschi’s 15th-century Madonna and Child and Nardo di Cione’s 14th-century Madonna del Parto. Brunelleschi’s sculpture depicts the child held close to his mother’s face with her veil wrapped around him protectively. Her facial expression is one of foreboding, while his is beautiful and unconcerned. Nardo di Cione’s pregnant Madonna del Parto is endearingly human. She rests her hand on top of her almost imperceptible bump, and this along with her slightly pursed lips makes it look as if she has heartburn. The artist perhaps understood the everyday discomforts suffered by pregnant women! I didn’t take any photographs as I was too engrossed in the guided tour and I’m trying to wean myself off the habit of letting the camera remember all the art I see. So I bought a postcard of the Madonna del Parto painting and was a bit disappointed to find I couldn’t do the same for Brunelleschi’s sculpture. Oh well. Pinterest will have to be my back-up memory bank.

The reason I have been increasingly turned off photography in art galleries and museums is partly because it is so ubiquitous in Florence and seems to be largely pointless. Everywhere I look I see herds of tourists marching around compulsively recording every sculpture, fresco, painting and landmark without looking at the real thing with their actual eyes for more than a split second! Click, check screen, move on. I know we all do a bit of this, and I’m as guilty as the next person, but it seems to have reached fever pitch in Florence. Photography itself isn’t really the problem, and maybe I’ve gone too far swearing off taking photos in museums, but compulsive documentation of nearly every frame of your visit, without taking the time to actually experience it, is excessive. Maybe it’s more intense in Florence because there is an impossible amount to see here?

Stendhal Syndrome is the name given to the very real psychological disorder caused by looking at all the art in Florence, and Dr. Mark Griffiths states that symptoms can include ‘physical and emotional anxiety (rapid heart rate and intense dizziness, that often results in panic attacks and/or fainting), feelings of confusion and disorientation, nausea, dissociative episodes, temporary amnesia, paranoia, and – in extreme cases – hallucinations and temporary ‘madness’.’ A perfect place to induce the phenomenon has to be in and around Piazza della Signoria. We were passing through this vast square the other day and took a little break from the sun in the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is filled with impressive sculptural works by the likes of Cellini and Giambologna. Piazza della Signoria is a visual overload in itself. Add in the effects of the nearby Uffizi and other surrounding galleries and the Loggia dei Lanzi seems to be a deliberate measure to ensure your brain implodes due to Renaissance saturation.

As we sat there we noticed a pattern. There were key points where tourists would stop, waiting for the person in front of them to move, so they could take up the same position, take the same photograph and immediately move on to the next artwork. All looking at the sculpture through screens instead of eyes. Everyone was taking the same photographs of objects they hadn’t really looked at. Is it not better to sit down for a few minutes and attempt to absorb the art and surroundings, relinquishing the desire to capture every single image? Or perhaps compulsive documentation of the artworks is a way of safely removing oneself from direct exposure to their beauty, and therefore is protective against Stendhal Syndrome? Are you risking your mental health by putting the camera away in Florence and allowing the art and architecture to seep into you, unfiltered and experienced in the very moment you encounter it? I have a growing sense that a detached, unthinking, constantly-living-through-the-camera attitude defeats the purpose of coming here.

Speaking of which, myself and Ollie were in the Duomo last Sunday for 10.30 morning Mass, which was celebrated through Latin and Italian with Gregorian chants throughout. Tourists are expressly asked not to enter the building at this time to take photographs, but are welcome to observe the Mass being celebrated. I’m not religious anymore, but my fascination with religious art and ceremony endures, and being there was a powerful experience. We were far from home, yet found ourselves in familiar surroundings, echoing countless childhood Sundays. The singing ignited snippets of Latin in my memory from hymns I’d learnt as a child, and initially brought to mind events like First Communion and Christmas Eve Mass, swiftly followed by visions of funerals and a sudden, overwhelming sense of my own and my loved ones’ mortality. I could feel tears brimming as memories and faces flooded my mind under the spell of the incense, chanting and stupendous surroundings. I was sharply aware of the power these places have to inspire awe in the faithful.

Then…click. Then…flash. The magic came to an abrupt end as a few members of the congregation couldn’t fight their addiction to their phones and iPads and felt compelled to take some snaps. The mass leaflet had to be photographed too, otherwise it didn’t really exist. I have a suspicion the girl in front of me was Instagramming everything. An audible discussion had to take place, mid-sermon, about the art adorning the cupola. People arrived and departed throughout the ceremony, stomping up and down the aisle, with no real regard for their surroundings. There were stewards on hand to maintain some semblance of order, and I imagine they would enthusiastically tackle anyone who might be thinking of running to the altar to take selfies with the priest. An announcement was made before communion asking non-Catholics to please refrain from receiving the communion host, but the pretenders could easily be spotted walking back down from receiving, with their arms swinging freely instead of hands clasped, chomping on the wafer like it was a piece of chewing gum. I had to remind myself not to hate these people.

Let’s be clear, I am not anti-tourism. Being from Ireland, a country hugely reliant on the industry, I know the positive financial contribution holidaymakers can make to communities and businesses. The economy of Florence is performing twice as well as the rest of Italy largely because of it’s visitor numbers. But I am against mindless, obnoxious, entitled tourism. I can see why some locals see it as a form of gangrene, eating away at the everyday culture and rhythm of their city. It shouldn’t be like this. It takes very little to be mindful of your surroundings and follow the protocols which allow these places to function more closely to how they normally would. It takes very little to learn how to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry, I don’t speak Italian’ in the local tongue, even if you can’t manage anything more. It takes very little to do a bit of research and adapt, even a little, instead of expecting your destination to bend completely to your desires, impulses and habits. I say all of this as a tourist myself. Having spent a few months here doesn’t make me a local by any stretch of the imagination. When I go in search of the ‘authentic’ Italy, I’m partly destroying the thing I’m attempting to experience. There has been recent talk of restricting visitor access to the coastal villages of Le Cinque Terre due to the impact of large numbers of tourists flooding the area during peak season. I will go to visit these same coastal villages this weekend and I can hardly contain my excitement. I can tell myself that I’ve just nipped ahead of the mid-June stampedes, so it’s not as bad, but I am part of the tourist problem whether I like it or not. I sympathise with the locals’ desire to reclaim their home towns from the hordes, while simultaneously really, really wanting to visit their jaw-droppingly beautiful region! But I will endeavour to be polite and respectful of my hosts and environment. I will take photographs, I will contribute to the local economy, but I will also stick to the hiking routes and try my best not to have a negative impact. I will pause to take it all in, and I will make a concerted effort to avoid rompere le scatole (to break boxes) i.e., getting on someone’s nerves.

I suppose balance is the key. There has to be a symbiotic relationship between the host and the guest to avoid disease. My sister and her husband are just about to make a trip to Florence, and I am ridiculously excited at the prospect of showing them around this magnificent city. I’ve been putting together an overstuffed itinerary, but am aiming to steer clear of the must-see tourist spots for the most part. We will have to make an exception for the Galleria dell’Accademia, to visit Michelangelo’s David and unfinished Prisoners/Slaves, but we will go there in the evening, when it tends to be quieter. The itinerary should help to redirect us away from the incessant crowds, the filled-to-capacity venues, fluorescent quasi-gelato and tourist menus, and hopefully give some of the less crowded but equally deserving museums, businesses and beauty spots some attention and revenue. I want to enjoy some of the quieter beauty and pleasures of this place and not be a total pain in the culo.


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Griffiths, M. (2012) Art attack: A beginner’s guide to Stendhal Syndrome. Available at: https://drmarkgriffiths.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/art-attack-a-beginners-guide-to-stendhal-syndrome/




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