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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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14 replies to this post
  1. I don’t know about others but I take pictures at local art museums so that I can plan future educational scavenger hunts.

  2. I am a retired art historian and I volunteer to answer visitors questions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In addition to increasing numbers of visitors who seem completely overwhelmed, I see this behavior every day. Plus, I am frequently asked these two questions 1. Do you have any famous paintings? 2. What are the most expensive things you have? In a way, these are the same question, so I think thus is a form of greed. Greed to “collect” famous and/or costly art works. It is also the reaction of people who have very little appreciation or understanding of what they are looking at. In addition, most people, both western and non-western, have no idea about the stories that are being told by, for instance, the frescoes at San Marco. We have moved so far away from “general knowledge” that people just don’t have a clue. The Met has had to alter the wall cards in order to explain subjects like the Annunciation, for example. Some of the “photographers” also take photos of the cards, but whether they ever look at them later is questionable. I think the phenomen is simply to prove that you have been some place. One sees exactly the same behavior on the city streets, so they can prove they were in New York at some place that every one has heard of, like Central Park or the Met or the Public Library or Times Square. In a way, it’s all the same to them.

  3. “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.” Oddly enough, there ARE people like that, though.

    I’m sort of on the other extreme. I take too few photos, but when I do, I take multiple copies of everything, in the hopes that at least some of them will turn out well. But I don’t bother taking photos that are just amateurish attempts to capture the same image a professional has printed onto postcards.

  4. @Margaret Duffy — Pretend the questions have been rephrased as follows: “This is a huge museum, and I don’t really know art. In the few hours I can spend here on this trip, I might accidentally walk right past the most important piece in the collection. Is there something I should really look out for, an item that stands out among the experts or that has enchanted masses of people?” That’s not greed, after all; it’s trying to use one’s limited resource of time wisely.

  5. I totally agree with Margaret Duffy. I happen to know one of these people and although he is not greedy I think he does not think deeply about what he is experiencing. Maybe he is also intellectually greedy.

  6. I’ve often been bemused by the manic picture takers, but maybe that’s because I tend to the opposite extreme. I seldom, if ever, take a picture of anything. I’ve just thought hard, and I believe I haven’t taken a dozen pictures in the past year – perhaps even less than 10.

    I was fortunate to live just outside London for several years, and about once a month I had to go into town for a business meeting. On such days I’d make a point to stop by the National Gallery and check out a single (pre-planned) painting. And that would be the only one I’d take in. I’d stand or sit for maybe 20 minutes in front of it and then leave.

    But you can only do that when you have the luxury of living close to a museum. If its a matter of having only one chance in your life to visit a particular museum, you’d probably want to see as much as you could. But even then, I’m not so sure. I’d rather really appreciate 10 paintings than rush past 500.

  7. as an artist i love to sit and look at works of art. this is not always possible because of crowds, so a “phone photo” can help me later….the catalogs of exhibitions are often very expensive and not within reach for many art lovers….however, i cannot understand the moving from one to the next to take photos. to not even look at the work before photographing it? i don’t know…..

  8. I’m too low-tech to know the range of possibilities, but in how far might there be digital opportunities to zoom in on details, compensate for lighting extremes, and such like, which nothing in a photo book or online might offer one to an equal degree?

    I get frustrated often enough not finding sufficiently detailed (or, again, full) photos online of something – an experience which might incline the technically savvy to lots of photos as a precaution, in case they wanted a closer look at something, later.

    I can imagine that would account for some of this.

  9. The digital age has ruined our capacity to see things deeply. People are surrounded by a constant stream of images and media, and they have come to treat artistic masterpieces in the same light – just one more blip on the media landscape. This article is illuminated by Fr. Longenecker’s typical charity and warmth, but I take a darker view of the matter.

  10. I think that part of the answer is that an increasing number of people experience life wholly or at least primarily through social media. If an unexamined life was once thought not worth living, now an un-uploaded life is not worth living. Rather than experience Florence, I think some of these people would rather visit Virtual Florence from the comfort of their hotel rooms or tour buses.

  11. My guess is many of them are probably novice travelers. The first time I went to Europe I spent as much time on trains going to “another place” as I did in the place I was going. I went back as a more seasoned traveler with a novice-traveler friend and she had those same over-eager inpulses. I think it’s more like gluttony.

  12. I was with my 20-year-old daughter in the Louvre last week. As we stood in admiration of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a young man wallked by without looking . He simply held up his camera and snapped it. My daughter was appalled. I think it’s part of our cultural attention defecit disorder.

  13. I might be one of those people the author complains about. But I did just spent hours sorting through my hundreds of London photos, including photos of my favorite pieces at the National Gallery and Tate, which entailed looking up the pieces and reading about them on Wikipedia and the museums’ websites, at a far more depth than I could manage in my too-short visit. So who is anyone to judge, indeed?

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