Some people go to Florence and check off its sights before heading for a pizzeria in the city that does Italy’s worst pizza (really, try the lethally delicious local delicacy Lardo di Colonnata instead). Others feast so obsessively on art they make themselves sick. Overdoing it on the art of Florence is a recognised medical condition, called Stendhal syndrome, named after the pseudonym of French novelist Marie-Henri Beyle, who fainted from artistic overload here in the early 19th century.
Now, Eike Schmidt, the director of the city’s Uffizi Gallery, wants to discourage the more superficial of its 2 million annual visitors, and, presumably, fill the city’s hospitals with exhausted aesthetes by changing how people visit Italy’s greatest art collection. He hopes to achieve this by changing ticket prices to reward repeat visits, including in the early mornings and off season, and punish people who “come in for a selfie in front of Botticelli’s Venus”, discouraging “hit-and-run tourism”.
It is a noble aim and one that could be applied far beyond the Uffizi’s frescoed corridors. From numbed ogling of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre to the British Museum’s bloated coach parties, a kind of aimless, brainless zombie tourism infects museums. Can the Uffizi’s punishment-and-reward pricing change that?
Perhaps, but there is nothing to stop us looking at art in a more sensitive way. The change is in us. “Slow tourism” starts if we simply step away from the throng, let it pass by, and look a little longer. Literally slow down. Give the art a bit of time to work on you. Imagine you are watching a film: relax, stand back (or up close), and allow your eyes to wander over the surface of, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, feeling the mystery of its shadows, the hook of its imagery, the depth of its space.
Look for the paintings that hold you, for whatever reason, and go with them. I once stared for so long at Titian’s Venus of Urbino that I started to get funny looks from the Uffizi security guards.
Art should be a love affair, not a guided tour. Were I to run a museum, I would ban tours and audio guides. It does not matter if you don’t know a painter’s name or style or period; you can look that stuff up later. Get a guidebook on the way out. Let nothing and no one come between you and the ravishment of art.
You don’t even need to avoid the crowds. Just concentrate. How will you know you’ve become a slow tourist? When you wake up in Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital with a bad case of the city’s notorious syndrome. If you really get it right, you may believe Da Vinci is about to dissect you. True love of art is a madness worth embracing.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010