Travel writer, television host and resident of Edmonds, Rick Steves recently completed a two-year project – the production of a six-hour public television mini-series titled “Rick Steves Art of Europe” – which aims to bring accessible, meaningful and fun art. This article was inspired by this series.
Seeing great art is a joy. And seeing it “in situ” both physically (where it was meant to be seen) and historically (to understand the context in which it was made) as you travel makes the experience even richer.
I haven’t always liked art history. As a teenager, I struggled fiercely through “Civilization,” Kenneth Clark’s epic art series. “Brilliant work,” I thought, “but let’s clear it up.” And I remember back in college flipping through a class catalog with some dorm buddies and playing “name the most boring class of them all.” My vote: History of art.
A few inspiring teachers – and perspective-expanding trips – later, I had changed my tune. I learned to recognize the value of great art as a window into the culture and people we travel so far to discover and understand. As a travel writer and tour guide, I’ve spent the past 40 years teaching art history in the most wonderful classrooms imaginable: Europe’s great galleries, palaces, cathedrals and museums. . Over these years, just as some appreciate fine wine, I have developed an appreciation for artistic genius – and for the times and places where that genius flourished.
It is a great journey to look at a fresco by Fra Angelico in his monastery in Florence and to understand why, for this monk-artist, painting was a form of prayer, and why he could not paint a crucifix without crying.
It is a great journey to contemplate a self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer brimming with humanist pride (at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) and to marvel at how, with his engravings and the state-of-the-art printing press technology, he was the first “best-selling” artist in Europe.
It’s a great trip to stand in front of a Vermeer painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and let it capture the tranquility so intimately that you can almost hear the trickle of milk as the maid pours it. Visit one of Europe’s venerable music halls and realize how Baroque music – Bach with his intertwining melodies, Scarlatti with his trills – can be “Bernini for your ears” and is best played with ruffles on your sleeves . And to walk around the sunny gallery of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and look too closely at Monet’s messy brushwork – a seemingly abstract collage of competing colors – then zoom out and bam, to suddenly understand the genius of his Water Lilies.
On Scotland’s Orkney Islands, I ducked my head – as people have done for 5,000 years – to squeeze through a tunnel before standing in a Stone Age tomb. Beneath this rocky ceiling, I was reminded that the progress of Western civilization can be tracked by art and architecture – in this case, the evolution of ever-taller domes.
This progress began around 1300 BC. AD with a Bronze Age tomb built like a stone igloo, with stones put together like the “beehive” tomb I visited in Mycenae, Greece. Then, in Rome, I dropped my jaw under the dome of the Pantheon, built 1,400 years later and which still amazes travelers with the magnificence and splendor of ancient Rome at its zenith.
Two hours away by train, and still some 1,400 years later, I gazed up at the mighty dome of Brunelleschi’s Cathedral overlooking Florence. It was so loved by the citizens that when Michelangelo set out to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he said he would build a dome “larger but not more beautiful” than its sister in Florence. Some 500 years later, on top of St. Peter’s, I stood where the sun’s rays stream into Christendom’s largest church and marveled at how a Renaissance superstar could glorify God and celebrate humanism at the same time.
Art takes us back, to experience it as if we were living when it was created. To marvel, like a prehistoric hunter with a torch under a dome of bison — or like a medieval peasant, passing from an existence of hunger, chills and fear to a church, to be surrounded by riches and the promise of a happy eternity. Chill at the appearance of a Gothic spire on the horizon, as if a pilgrim had traveled a thousand kilometers to get there. Truly believing that a “divine monarch” has been ordained by God to rule without question, then be wowed by the giant murals of his triumphs and halls of mirrors covered in gold leaf. To understand why the great surrealist Dali said: “I am the drug”.
Art transports us to other cultures and other eras. It shows us both our weaknesses and our potential for greatness. It contributes to the brilliance of a society’s culture. And, of course, it gives us something to savor – exquisite beauty.
Rick Steves of Edmonds (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public television and radio and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.