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The Tour in the Visual Arts

A hard-won supremacy

The city was “inundated” with visual expressions of art, located both outdoors (its civil or religious buildings) and inside the churches and palaces, crammed with works of architecture, painting and sculpture. This overwhelming quantity, which for us is of indisputable quality as well, only revealed its full value with some difficulty over the centuries, encountering opposition and clashing with conceptions of art that denied its importance.
It is true that since at least the middle of the 16th century foreign artists had flocked to Florence to gain firsthand knowledge of the Renaissance which, even if some of its more mature products were located at the papal court, was born in the capital of the grand duchy. Moreover, the organization of the arts under Medici rule, with the summoning of craftsmen from outside by Cosimo I to expand the range of the artistic industry at court, contributed considerably to this influx. So even then, notwithstanding the primacy of Venice and Rome, Florence had already begun to stir the curiosity of foreigners: with the quality of the collections on display in the Galleria degli Uffizi, with that genuine open-air museum of sculptures that was Piazza della Signoria and with the fame of its magnificent festivals.
But for the artistic excellence of Tuscany to ripen in the awareness of the art lovers who visited the country it was necessary for other interests to come to maturity, and for people to begin to come to Italy to discover not just the Renaissance but also the Middle Ages and the art of the «primitives» (Previtali, 1964). The position assigned to the Italian primitives in the ordinary understanding of travelers – with reference to the golden age, that 18th century so central to the fashion of the Grand Tour – was a truly lowly one. Delivering them from this humble status was neither a simple nor a rapid process. In opposition to the chorus of travelers who denigrated in no uncertain terms an art they regarded as “primitive” and unworthy, were raised the voices of those who acknowledged that Gothic art had achieved some fine things (typical was the appreciation of Florence Cathedral, like that expressed by Montesquieu in 1728, who considered it «one of the most beautiful works that Gothic architecture has been able to produce» ) and deserved respect. But even in these cases, it has been pointed out (Previtali, 1964), «the extent of the relative recognition [...] was limited to the opinion that it was the ‘taste of ignorance'». Thus it was a, let us say, condescending appreciation, and one that did not reflect a real understanding. Consequently, when we come across an unprecedented positive opinion on the architecture or, even more unlikely, the painting or sculpture of the past centuries, it is easy to trace its origin to some «local laudatory tradition,» as in the aforementioned case of Montesquieu's admiration of Florence Cathedral: in Carlieri's Ristretto delle cose più notabili di Firenze (an Italian text known to have been one of the favorites in the philosopher's library) the monument was in fact given a positive assessment. In confirmation of this argument Previtali notes that «the most highly regarded and widely discussed monuments were not, in general, the most beautiful or important or the ones located in the main centers, but those to be found in towns and cities that had nothing more modern to offer for the tourist's admiration: thus one spoke of Giotto in Padua but not in Florence, the primitives were neglected in Bologna and even in Siena, but not in Pisa» (Previtali, 1964).
To take one example, while Edward Gibbon, who spent a total of three months in Florence in 1764 (and still expressed regret, in his account, at not having paid the city enough attention), continued to ignore the medieval and look on it with condescension, deeming Giotto's paintings «ugly», he does not seem to have been touched by the incipient reaction against the baroque that had begun to emerge in some travelers of the time. His position, personal but shared to a large extent by many contemporary travelers, shows the complicated character of a history of artistic sensibility that struggled to replace a criterion of evolution with one of aesthetic exclusivism based solely on the contemporary canons at the disposal of the people who were looking at them at the time of their creation.

How to approach art

The subject of art, a vast undertaking for the writer and one that could sometimes prove disheartening even for the reader, raised a series of methodological problems whose solution – in a more or less practical manner as well as one that was effective from a literary point of view – had a great bearing on the success of the travel book, at the time of its publication as well as in the eyes of posterity, as it determined its legibility. How to “describe” everything that that one saw? The multiplicity of the elements demanded an organization of the exposition and above all a clarity to which the word did not always lend itself.
Here those travelers with an artistic bent were able to make use of drawing, a more eloquent medium than words, both as an alternative to and, more often, a support for the written text: a sort of alternate means of illustration. Travelers with no talents of their own but with money at their disposal could turn to artists of greater or lesser skill, although the involvement of others necessarily meant sacrificing in part one's own perception.
But above and beyond the use of graphic aids, the problem of the organization of the text remained. Authors adopted a variety of solutions, linked not so much to the preparation and competence of the writer himself (almost always fairly good) as to the expertise of the people to whom he intended to address his writings, i.e. the extent to which the traveler wished his contribution to be intelligible to all.
There were some who went on the Grand Tour precisely with this aim: seeing, learning if possible and communicating what they had learned. They were the academics, the intellectuals, the artists who reported their findings, often by letter, to their colleagues at home. In these cases the description made use of technical terms and the writer expressed a verdict, of approval or criticism, that was shared from the outset by his readers. The independence of such opinions was limited by the schemes and ideas that the author set out to confirm rather than disavow with his views.
There were those who wrote with didactic ambitions and who, in their approach to the subject of art, ran up against the problem of breadth as well as precision. The most pedantic solution was that of the list (almost always arranged spatially, following the direction taken by the visitor or one that had been declared at the beginning, for example from the east side to the west side, with many possible variations). It could include the following items of information , all together or one by one (the choice was often far from systematic): author of the work, title of the work, subject of the work, technical characteristics, the writer's opinion and anecdotes about the work. To complicate matters even further, each of these items might then be discussed at greater length. In addition to the invincible feeling of surfeit that such a method generated in the reader, the problem arose in these cases, then as now, of changes of location in the collections, something that was bound to confuse the novice traveler with a copy of Lalande, let us say, in his hand, when he did not find the picture he had been looking forward to in the place where it was supposed to be. An exception to this rule is the book written by Deseine (1699), who applied the principle of the list to the “history” of the arts rather than to individual works, which he cited all the same but without dwelling on them at length. These were the premises for a fairly disarming inventory of names (presented moreover from a biographical rather than critical viewpoint): «the quantity of fine paintings that can be seen in Florence is a good reason for drawing up a short list of its best painters and sculptors [...] so that by knowing the time when they worked one is better able to grasp the merit of their art.»
A solution halfway between this and that of ellipsis, which was also practiced by some writers, especially when inclined to a light tone, in what we might call the manner of the “novel” (thus Smollett, in 1765: «It may also appear superfluous to mention my having viewed the famous gallery of antiquities, the chapel of St. Lorenzo, the palace of Pitti [...]. But all these objects having been circumstantially described by twenty different authors of travels, I shall not trouble you with a repetition of trite observations»; and Thomas Jones, who in his Memoirs (1776-78) mentions the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti and the Annunziata only to say that he had been to them), was that of the selection proposed by the traveler, who mentions only “what is worthy of note,” or “what he has found to be of greatest interest,” and in any case from a deliberately and declaredly partial personal perspective. This option, although certainly debatable at times from the viewpoint of taste, turns out to be the most effective and up to date, especially when seen in terms of the modern theories of museum curating.


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