The conduct of the tourists in Florence, as they aimed their smart phone cameras at one great work of art after another and quickly moved on, puzzled me. What was this strange behavior?…

It was with mixed emotions that I anticipated a few days in Florence this summer. I had first visited the city thirty years ago on a hitchhiking pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem, so I was looking forward to seeing once again Fra Angelico’s frescoes at San Marco, Michelangelo’s monumental sculptures and the paintings in the Uffizi. However, some friends had told me that Florence in the summer was shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, and they were not all as well-behaved, well-dressed, and well-spoken as the English ladies and gentleman in A Room With a View.

My friends were correct. The city was packed with tourists from around the world. The queues to ascend Brunelleschi’s famous dome snaked around and around the Piazza. Vendors of souvenirs, cold drinks, and gelato hawked their wares. On the other side was another queue, nearly as long to climb to the top of the Campanile. Pavements and piazzas were packed with tattooed ladies in tank-tops, chubby chaps in shorts and flip-flops, and busloads of eager Asians viewing the whole scene through their smart phones.

Far be it from me to deny the pleasures of the Renaissance to hoi polloi, and while the crowds were annoying on a sweltering day in August, there was also a cheerful sense of carnival about it all. Surely the great public spaces in European cities were designed to be, well, great public spaces. The people were out and about and enjoying themselves, and what a good thing that they were in some sort of way, soaking up the glories of Western art, architecture, and faith.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help observing the bizarre behavior of a good number of my fellow visitors to the Uffizi. After filing through the obligatory security check, we trooped through the galleries with the crowds, but instead of stopping to look at the pictures, a good number walked into the gallery, aimed their smart phone cameras at one picture after another, snapped a photo, and moved quickly on.

I witnessed the same odd behavior at the monastery of San Marco. There, Fra Angelico’s sweet and simple frescoes are preserved in the monastic cells, and you wander through the old friary poking your head into each cell to see the artwork. There too, tourists simply walked up to the cell door, aimed their camera, clicked, and moved on.

What was this strange behavior? They were taking far too many photographs to ever go back and sort through, catalog, and keep them as memory prompts. Were they going to sit down with loved ones back home and say, “Let’s look at my 11,000 pictures of Florence?” I don’t think so. Would they ever look at the pictures again at all? If so, what would they make of them? The tourists I observed were snapping photos indiscriminately. What were they thinking, if they were thinking at all?

Were they trying to capture the transcendent experience of viewing Botticelli’s Primavera or an Annunciation by Leonardo? They did not stay in front of any painting long enough to experience an epiphany. Were they taking snaps in order to have good photographic copies of the paintings when they got home? One could get a better image of most of the paintings from the internet with a quick Google search.

An artist friend had observed the same behavior in galleries and analyzed it. “I think,” he said, “that it is a kind of greed, idolatry, and vanity all rolled together.”

“Explain.” I urged.

“Greed because in a way they are acquiring those pictures. They are grabbing them with a quick click and adding them to their own mini gallery in their smart phone. Idolatry as in celebrity worship. The pictures are famous, and they came to see the famous pictures like a tourist to Los Angeles might take a tour of the homes of the stars. Vanity because they will go home and boast about their visit to Italy, and a few of the pictures will seal their case.”

“Too harsh!” I cried. To quote some of the wisest words of Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” I continued, “How do we know these are not crowds of art connoisseurs, taking photographs in order to return home, savor endlessly, and perhaps share with the students to whom they teach art appreciation?”

In the end, the behavior of the tourists in the Uffizi continues to puzzle me. Perhaps the inveterate photo-snappers are actually touched by some remnant of the art’s true magnificence and beauty. Maybe a primeval memory common to the whole human race flickers within them. It could be that below their consciousness they are stirred by the awesome and ancient human achievement before them as one is moved by the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, Chartres, Mont St Michel or Stonehenge. Perhaps they are simply responding to an instinctual need to worship when in the presence of all that is beautiful, good and true, and if so, then their smartphone snapshot is their way of lighting a candle before the Madonna— and not knowing how to pray, they pay homage by taking her picture.

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