I think I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite tricks to make the famous art museums in Italy (and elsewhere) more tolerable to my wandering mind is to bring along the appropriate pages of Rick Steves’ now out of print book, “Mona Winks” (my understanding is that the self-guided tours that made up that book are now included with the various destination guides he writes, but I don’t have any of his new books to confirm that). The thing that I think is so great about those self-guided tours isn’t that they’re all-encompassing. In fact, they’re far from it – if any guide (alive or in book form) tried to cover everything that was in the big museums of the world, you’d be there for days. And by the time you got out, chances are pretty good you’d hate both the guide and the art itself.
No, “Mona Winks” was great for its well-explained highlights tour of the museums it covered. It doesn’t just tell you that painting X in room Y is important, it tells you why, which is often more interesting. It also leaves plenty of room for you to put the guide in your pocket and further explore anything that’s not covered in its pages, so it’s the best of both worlds as far as I’m concerned.
I just noticed a post on the Italofile blog, however, that’s making me very curious – it’s a series of audio guides about Italian art, covering many of the big tourist stops. It’s called Jane’s Smart Art Guides, and you can get them in a CD set or even download them to your MP3 player so you can listen to them while you’re looking at what they’re talking about. Italofile also makes note of a video podcast of Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Theresa’ by a group called smARThistory that’s free (oh, how we like free things).
Whatever method you choose to learn a little bit about what you’re seeing – whether it’s doing research before you go, hiring a local guide or taking a self-guided tour of a gallery or museum – you’ll be much better off if you get to the understanding of why something is important in art history, rather than just swallowing the fact that it’s important. You’ll get more out of the tour, and you’ll be better able to see things for yourself in the next museum you enter, which is enough to make even the most disaffected youth feel pretty smug, indeed.
Photo by: Saúl Crujera