Pilgrims of the arts

July 27, 2009

Whoever travels back in memory to a city he has visited, either as a tourist or as a pilgrim of the arts, usually clings to some landmarks as clearly distinguishable from the mass of buildings as are lighthouses for a sailor approaching a port, and almost all of these landmarks are monuments. It is rather peculiar that one tends to concentrate—through a process less natural than what it appears to be—not just the character, but almost the very essence of a city in a few buildings generally considered emblematic, without thinking that such a representation will not only prevent us from getting a feeling for the town’s configuration and density of population, but also subtract from its global and familiar presence the power to exalt, create attachments, and make us dream, since our awareness becomes fixed on only a few susceptible points. Taken to extremes, this type of exclusivity—exacerbated and rendered systematic by the growing popularity of guidebooks—can render a town classified as a “city of the arts” almost lifeless for the visitor. The tourist who spends two days in Venice to “see the town” will not have the slightest idea of the spontaneous, charming, and rather simple everyday life just waiting to be discovered along the calli, the rii, or on the little paved squares. At times like the present, when tourists are being conditioned in advance by the media to see the architectural musts in the city they plan to visit, one sometimes wonders about alternative approaches that are more functional, more natural, and less superstitious; for example, not to visit cathedrals unless one plans to attend Mass, or to visit historic houses only if friends lived there, and—since we are talking about Venice—not to cross the Bridge of Sighs unless one’s lodgings happen to be in the prison adjacent tot he Palace of the Dukes, or cross it only to prolong a state of mind after having reread, once again, Casanova’s Memoirs.

—from The Shape of a City, Julian Gracq

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