‘The unexpected rewards I found travelling with an open mind’

Jun 21, 2019
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Some of the works of art you'll see at the Louvre in Paris, France. Source: Ian Smith

It was probably when I was in the Louvre, that splendid centre for the arts in what many tout as the most romantic city on the planet, Paris, France. I’d studiously avoided what 90 per cent of the people go to see and wandered around the sculpture section. Here I pored over numerous examples of classic statuary, examples of classical art from centuries previous. The fine lines were there to be admired, the muscle tones finely worked into stone so they almost felt alive. As I avoided what seemed to be the main walkway, I almost had the place to myself.

Eventually I mused on the comings and goings and wondered what all the fuss was about and poked my head around the corner, only to be confronted by at least a busload of Japanese tourists taking turn about to be photographed in front of a statue, and that statue only, for, once they were done, they exited the room as quickly as they’d come. “What about all the other works,” I felt like shouting out. “They have arms as well!” Yet they remained unvisited, except by a handful of those whose broader appreciation made them dwell.

It’s a human trait of the masses to slavishly follow publicity, ignoring so much that is wonderful and so much that is awful because it has not yet received a byline or appeared on the internet somewhere. Ignorance, it is oft quoted, is bliss.

I mean, the Mona Lisa was just another painting in the Louvre, basically only known to art enthusiasts. Crowds did not flock to it, but then, something miraculous happened — it was stolen! An Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia actually worked at the Louvre and stowed it in a broom closet before walking out with it under his coat. An artist, Louis Beroud, turned up next day to copy the work, but guards said it was probably being photographed for some museum publicity. Hours later he returned, still no painting. It was then that the alarm was raised. Upon its recovery two years later, the general populous couldn’t get enough of it and its fame continues.

Willem van Mieris ‘Le Marchand de gibier’ can be found at the Louvre in Paris, Fance. Source: Ian Smith

Meanwhile, on my next visit, I opted for the Dutch Masters. Work after stunning work of people in everyday scenes, although Johannes Vermeer’s are invariably of indoors because he hardly ever went out. Nonetheless it was a period when Holland broke the mould of religious art because their patrons were not the clergy but wealthy businessmen who wanted to see themselves and everyday scenes rather than the parade of biblical scenes and the result is an entrancing cross section of real life.

There were a few others wandering around, they could be counted on my fingers, and again I thought how sad it was that others weren’t having this experience.

Other examples are manifold. I’ll never forget catching one of San Francisco’s famous trams up to Nob Hill. I had no idea what to expect but it looked like a nice area so I got off and wandered around this upmarket and seemingly snobbish block or two. Imagine my surprise when I strolled across the park and was confronted by some doors that were immediately recognisable. Just where from I didn’t call immediately to mind, but then it came to me.

Towering over San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood, the iconic Grace Cathedral is hard to miss. Source: Ian Smith

The doors of Grace Cathedral, facing downtown San Francisco, are called the Doors of Paradise; replicas of the famed doors in the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral, Italy, the work of master founder and artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. They are considered the high point of technical and artistic bronze work in the early Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo, in his formative years, is said to have dubbed them ‘Porta del Paradiso’, the Doors of Paradise. Not only the technical mastery of the work, but the infusion of sculptural form and narrative flow with humanist ideals and cutting-edge science (linear perspective), all enveloped in a golden atmosphere, make these doors a true masterpiece. More amazing is that in a list of the Top 10 Cultural things to do on Nob Hill — they aren’t even mentioned!

You may say, “Ah, but they’re only a copy”, and you’d be right; except that’s all the ones in Florence are too! Indeed, the originals are in safe underground storage away from any possibility of damage and there were two copies done, one that you can see all by yourself or the other, shoulder to shoulder with the hordes.

While you’re in Florence, you will probably go to see Michelangelo’s hugely famous statue of David (one of three in the city), if you can get behind all the throng taking selfies. Remember that it’s only a copy as well but, while you’re there, you might just spend a moment glancing across the hall at the sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, an epic bronze work that was deemed impossible because it was thought that the lost wax process would not allow enough time for the molten metal to reach all the extremities of the feet and the head of Medusa, held aloft after being severed. On the day of casting, a violent storm erupted, the lid of the casting exploded and the process was almost ruined but Cellini leapt from his death bed and fuelled the fire with all manner of kitchen items, mainly pewter, and saved his masterpiece.

The irony is that he then placed the finished work facing David, symbolically turning him into stone, Cellini’s last joke on the master. Oh, and what you would see of Perseus and Medusa, if you looked, is actually the original, unlike that of David.

An exact replica of Michaelangelo’s David, standing on the grounds of the Ripley’s Believe It! or Not museum in St Augustine, Florida. Source: Ian Smith

If you’d like to see the exact same David statue, you can drop into Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in St Augustine, Florida, because that’s where the other copy is, set inside some topiary.

The point is; when travelling, keep an open mind always. From personal experience I can vouchsafe that you will be rewarded beyond your expectations.

What exepected rewards have you encountered when you’ve travelled?

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