Of course I can’t know, but I imagine that in old Europe, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, life happened on multiple levels. There was the everyday where most people lived, their time filled with the humdrum of their lives, with hard labor, their occasional joys, their frustrated hopes. There were moments when that reality intersected with the one that danced across the ceilings of the cathedrals they filed into every week: when someone was born, when they were married, when they died. But most of the time what was important, what wasn’t merely ordinary, didn’t take place in the hovels or apartments of the common man. Nor in his fields or on his busy streets. Instead, the sacred reality fell in great waves of color from the vaulted ceilings and walls of their churches. It perched on steeples and towers and domes. Up there, there were crowds of better beings: God the Father; the Son; Mary, mother of God; disciples and clerics and holy women, and everywhere—troupes of angels.
For centuries, the world came to Italian churches on cobbled hills—pilgrims seeking God, counting beads, genuflecting, signing the cross, burning candles. As time passed, the visitors became increasingly secular. They were students of great art, not faithful devotees. They made a Grand Tour through the churches, palaces , and museums of Europe, an educational rite of passage. They examined the visions of the great Italian artists from another point of view.
I had hoped on my trip to Italy for a bit of a Grand Tour. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t exactly what I got. The numbers of visitors had exploded into the hundreds of thousands. Not unnaturally, it was uncomfortable rubbing up against people in those numbers; it was hard to be awed at the ends of elbows. But the art was still great. The trip was still wonderful.
What was disconcerting was something else. Almost everyone was looking at art or, if you’d prefer, God, through the lenses of cameras and phones. Filipino, German, Scandinavian, French, English, American, Japanese, Chinese—it didn’t matter. Everywhere they held their lenses up to the painted heavens—modern day worshipers of another sort. Peddlers sold extensions for cameras and phones so the tourists could raise them higher, way above the heads of the picture-takers around them. The pictures were much less expensive than souvenirs and they could make so many of them.
They wanted to take everything home with them. They wanted to possess it and show it to their neighbors at home. They wanted to put it on Facebook.
Frequently they wanted to own themselves in it. They took “selfies” alongside the town officials of centuries ago, the gentle people the artists painted into the scenes to flatter their sponsors, looking up at Jesus, waiting for him to die on his cross. The new tourists waited with them.
They shot themselves side by side with the disciples at the last judgment. The trumpets sounded, the pleading multitudes gathered, the damned fell back in horror. The tourists posed in front of the art they were recording—not angels, not saints, not even medieval gentry, just displaced witnesses from another time.
Near Michelangelo’s David are other sculptures, some of them roughly hewn, the figures still emerging from the stone. One of the most moving of these is a pieta. The son of God is shockingly pitiable, and dead, deader than anyone I’ve ever seen. Did the pretty blonde and her boyfriend who snapped her there, smiling, see what they were doing? Or had the statue just become a famous rock? Had the meaning been utterly stripped from it?
“Shush,” murmured the keepers of the cathedrals to the over-excited mobs. “No flash.” “No flash.” But would they come if they couldn’t take pictures at all? “This is a holy site.” But the people seemed at a loss even with these few restrictions. Were they able to see any more without a camera?
Oh, come on, says the touring photographer with the i-Phone to his cheek. When the student came to these same churches on his Grand Tour, didn’t he try, and fail, to describe what he’d seen—to remember it, to talk about it, sometimes to sketch it? Doesn’t the camera lens work better than that? So what if the result is just a copy—mind you, a nearly perfect copy, cameras have become so sophisticated, so easy to use—does it matter?
How utterly opposite to the “slow art” movement, where—like the slow food movement, also a product of the Italian imagination—time is to be taken. To look. To eat. To absorb the beauty. But perhaps that’s not even relevant in the midst of the crowds swarming the Italian hill towns. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, there really isn’t room or time to stop and consider.
Nevertheless, the originals are parts of stories. Even a simple portrait has a place in a narrative. Context is never incidental, not even to the angels, who are sometimes merely punctuation or decoration. In these churches, in some of these palaces and even in some of what have become museums, context is everything. The digital copy has inevitably been taken out of context. The perspective is all wrong.
I’ve been talking about my own short Italian tour and the contemporary need to make copies of art. But what about museums where the picture is not part of a larger context? What about the times it is its own context? What about, for example, the Mona Lisa? The image is simply not the same as the picture. It’s a copy. It may be an excellent one, but it’s still a copy. Brush strokes. Perspective. Color. Just not quite the same, it seems to me. Still, the crowds come with their cameras.
And I can only stop in bewilderment. Of course, the copy is not the same as the original. People are standing around the original, taking pictures of it. They’re not gathered around a perfect printed copy of the picture. It’s the original they want to copy, if not to see.
But what does it mean for art and human culture, if the pictures we see are only copies, if we never look at the original except through a lens?