Sunday, April 19, 2009

millinerd guide to guidebooks

Guidebooks are the Biblical commentaries of the art historical field. One may read an art history textbook with attention, but never with the slavish devotion to every jot and tittle given a guidebook as one seeks that certain church or this specific statue within it. No Art Bulletin article, however well crafted, has known the sheer filial dependence placed in a guidebook by a traveler lost in an unknown city. George Steiner once wrote,
The mass of books and critical essays, of scholarly articles, of acta and dissertations produced each day in Europe and the United States, has the blind weight of a tidal wave.
And that was two decades ago. The tidal wave has only swelled, and the saddest thing about the tsunami is how little of it will be read. Not so with guidebooks. They enjoy a wide and diverse audience that specialized academic art history publications will never know. Guidebooks are those disproportionately influential, underappreciated common vessels of art historical truth.

This doesn't of course mean they're necessarily good. I have been burned by guidebooks before, be it through just plain inaccuracy, or through an annoying secular bias that assumes its readers to be pleasure-seeking drifters with no more than passing interest in religion or history. Other guidebooks have been good but not ideal. For example, I did nearly every walking tour in John Freely's classic Strolling through Istanbul, but ultimately feel its dense prose and limited, low quality maps and pictures was too much of a drawback.

Sometimes, as with Macedonia/F.Y.R.O.M. or Serbia/Kosovo, one doesn't have much of a choice (for those countries, Bradt is about it). Italy, however, is guide-book rich, leaving one the option of choosing the best case guidebook scenario: Rick Steves for practicalities, and the Blue Guide for art history. If any country to which you travel offers that combination, take it. I've made the mistake of having Rick and not Blue, and Blue and not Rick, and have paid the price. Both are necessary, and both excel in their respective categories in ways only possible because of the dynastic team enterprises that both Rick Steves and Blue Guides have become.

First comes Rick, to whom I owe a serious debt. He taught me how to travel. You don't outgrow Rick's enthusiasm, you grow into it. If you see a confused traveler on a street corner in Orvieto muttering out loud, "What say you Rick?" and reaching into his manpurse, that would be me. It's become habit, and I'm not ashamed. Consider some Rickisms:
"Travel teaches the beauty of human fulfillment. I believe God created each of us to be fulfilled."

"Affording travel is a matter of priorities. (Make do with the old car.)"

"Extroverts have more fun... Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic.... If something's not to your liking, change your liking."
True, Rick may initially seem a tad too perky on screen, but what he's doing is embodying his own advice - and when you hit Europe you both realize how much that upbeat attitude is necessary, and long that your travel companions shared it. Who but Rick Steve's can successfully orient you to the cultural goings on in Padua University, and dare you to go up to students and ask them their take on Italian politics? True, I believe Rick goes too far by spurring middle age adults to smoke up in Amsterdam, but in an interesting case of generational rebellion, at least his son knows better.

Sure, I have my disagreements. To his bogus "skip Thessaloniki" counsel, I would retort with his advice given elsewhere: "If you don't enjoy a place, maybe you don't know enough about it." Rick sees his mission as overcoming American ethnocentrism, and he does it well. In the process, I believe he goes over the top in praising the big government of demographic freefall Europe. He also, I believe, underappreciates the (fast vanishing) American distinctives, but Rick is still honest enough to admit that Europe is "not a place I'd want to run my small business."

When it comes to European practicalities, Rick has just the right tone, and his yearly book updates (a rarity in the industry) ensure his details don't get stale. To put it bluntly, I was in Rome over the notoriously busy Holy Week, saw all of the most popular monuments, and while I passed many long lines, the only time I waited in one was to get on the plane. Why? Slavish devotion to Rick Steves.

In addition, Rick provides the videos, radio shows, forums, and best of all, free audio tours. Yes, these can be cheesy, but one must admit Rick is funny - at times in a laugh-out-loud kind of way. (Listen at 9:25 on the San Marco audio tour.) Fortunately, in these audio guides one of his colleagues has been summoned to counter his voice which produces a nice effect. That said, my female art historical colleagues will likely be infuriated that Rick is the one with the big insights, and she is the one who says things like "Did someone say shopping?"

At times, Rick's (or his co-author Gene Openshaw's) gift for boiling history down to the essentials is extremely effective. For example, here's medieval Italy made easy. There were "supporters of the popes (called Guelphs, centered in urban areas) and those of the emperors (Ghibellines, popular with the rural nobility)." But this same gift for simplicity is what renders Rick inadequate. One can only hear the Middle Ages dismissed as "centuries of superstition and ignorance" so many times before it really starts to grate. His Florence audio walking tour is enough to make a Byzantinist leap into the Arno.

Usually, the Lutheran Rick is free from prejudice. For example, he effectively defends the possible legitimacy of the relics in Venice's San Marco treasury to a skeptical American audience, and at the same time encourages skepticism when it's due - a tension masterfully handled. When in Rome, Rick encourages all travelers to become temporary Catholics. Still, Rick needs do a better job of taking his own advice. In the Colosseum audio guide, he begs your empathy for for the political rationale behind the killing binges, and then summons his listeners to compunction only at Constantine's arch. Likewise, Rick's wrap-up of the message in Michelangelo's Sistine Last Judgment is a belly flop:
Christ is returning, some will go to hell and some to heaven, and some will be saved by the power of the rosary.
But I suppose this is no surprise. Protestantism, the church of grace and liberty, often runs out of both grace and liberty in Rome.

There are also some plain errors. For example, Rick's Pantheon audioguide (2:27) says that Agrippa built it, but despite what it says on the pediment, Hadrian did (giving the honor to Arippa). And contrary to Rick's guidebook (468), the famous Madonna del voto in the Siena cathedral was not by Duccio. Petty as it may be to point out those tiny errors, it points to a general incompleteness that the wise traveler will seek to supplement.

Enter the Blue Guide. Rick has been going for decades, and keeps getting better. Blue has been going for a century (and if you count their predecessor, even more) and hence has been getting better for much longer. Not only does Blue provide you with incisive, accurate, in depth art historical information of the actual monuments, it also provides you with the best historic commentary, imparting a genuine sense of the arc of western civilization. For example, in Venice you get Venice and John Ruskin's punchiest quips. In Rome, you get the Colosseum, and Charles Dicken's take upon the monument as well, and Gibbon's, Balzac's, Byron's, etc.

The short historical essays in Blue are masterful distillations of huge swaths of information which, when read on site, can be revelations. It's not that one reads the Blue Guide and thinks, "That's interesting, I look forward to reading a more in depth art historical treatment later on." No, in many cases the Blue Guide is that more in depth art historical treatment, with the added dimension of to-the-point clarity which so much art historical literature can lack. Consider sentences like this from Blue Guide Venice:
Venice has no Dante or Leonardo or Alberti or Machiavelli; but it produced painters whose universal influence has been incomparable, because of one fundamental lesson they imbibed from the endless modulations of their native light.
Furthermore, Blue boldly takes on cherished misconceptions. Rather than whining about spolia, Blue refers to the "famous 'plundering' of the ancient buildings in the Forum, which in fact probably saved these historical works from destruction in later centuries." Rather than stroking one's self-congratulatory American pluralism, The Blue Guide is free thinking enough to poke fun at free thinkers:
Giordino Bruno's death at the hands of the Inquisition made him a hero to anti-clerical 19th-century liberals, but his rambling philosophical and theological writings are unlikely to have appealed to them in detail, for he was by no means a proto-liberal.
And whereas Rick uses the Sistine Chapel to take a pot-shot at the rosary, the Blue Guide culminates a brilliant essay with the haunting observation that Michelangelo's self placement shows that "He obdurately believed he was condemned to perdition." Such gutsy, controversial calls are Blue Guide staples. The seriousness of tone matches the seriousness of the works being examined.

Not that Blue Guides are perfect. Blue too is subject to the Renaissance bias, suggesting in the Venice book that Bellini's Transfiguration is "probably the first altarpiece of the Transfiguration to have been painted, as the religious festival celebrating the even twas only introduced in 1457." It'd be nice to at least mention the Orthodox tradition in this context, especially in a guidebook to a city so indebted to Byzantium. But the Vasari spell is a very difficult one to break.

While the strengths of the Blue Guide may seem capable of replacing Rick, I still consider both essential. Although the Blue Guides recommend hotels, contains walks and restaurant options (suggestions which I admit I haven't fully investigated), it feels as odd to consult Blue Guide for those purposes as it feels to consult Rick for in depth art or architectural history. Rick expertly plumbs Europe's shifting present, Blue beautifully showcases its infinite past. For those familiar with Biblical studies, Rick is the sometimes preachy New Interpreter's Commentary, Blue the heavyweight Anchor, and one needs both. The perfect trip should combine the attitude of Rick Steves with the authority of the Blue Guide - both of which pay for themselves several times over in a single trip.