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Rick Steves’ Europe: Tips for appreciating great art

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A favorite teaching trick of mine, in my work as a tour guide in Europe, is to build a Gothic cathedral out of tourists. It just takes 13 bodies: six columns, six buttresses, and a spire. Imagine the scene: raised arms creating pointed arches, plenty of space between the columns for stained glass, and the buttresses taking a step back to become flying buttresses … it's perfect. When the skinny spire muscles her way into the sky, and the skeleton of support stands strong, all involved will forever better understand the medieval genius of Gothic.

Europe is a treasure chest of great art and history. And our challenge is to enjoy it.

As a kid on family trips to Europe, I dutifully went to the great galleries because my mom said it would be a crime not to. Touring places like the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, I was surrounded by people looking like they were having a good time — and I was convinced they were faking it. I thought, “How could anybody enjoy this stuff?” A few years later, after a class in classical art history, that same museum was a fascinating trip into the world of Pericles and Socrates, all because of some background knowledge.

People ask me about saving money on museum tickets. And while you can save a little here and there, a better budget tip is to make those experiences more worthwhile. Those who bring an understanding with them will enjoy the art and architecture a lot more. And when you appreciate the context in which things were made, paintings and statues become the closest thing you’ll get to a time machine in your travels.

Learn who paid for what you’re looking at and why. Climbing the dark spiral staircase in Paris' Sainte-Chapelle, you suddenly emerge in the most beautifully lit medieval chapel in Europe … a virtual lantern of 800-year-old stained glass built to house what people believed was Jesus’ crown of thorns. Standing in a radiant shower of colored light filtering through that glass and knowing that, so long ago, King Louis IX of France paid a fortune to build the most glorious space in all of Europe to properly house this relic, takes you back.

See things in the context of the age they were created. Stepping into Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Leonardo's Last Supper comes vividly to life when you understand what a blessing it was for the friars – who for centuries ate in silence under that fresco – to dine in such divine company.

Let art be ground-breaking. Looking into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, you see more than a shepherd boy sizing up a giant: You see humankind stepping out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance … and our modern world. And you can imagine feeling proud to be a Florentine.

Venture out of your comfort zone. At Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, watching a group of first-graders sit on the floor in front of a painting of a naked prostitute as they learn about Edouard Manet and the Realists of the 19th century — you realize art appreciation is a frontier, and we can all be students ... wide-eyed, inspired, and free to venture in.

 

It’s more than knowing the best views and angles. It’s recognizing just how many Madonnas and Children your travel partners can enjoy before their eyes glaze over. It’s being atop the Acropolis in Athens in the cool of the early evening — when the crowds are gone and the "magic hour" light warms the stony brilliance of the Parthenon. It’s succumbing to art as propaganda … letting a divine monarch or a corrupt pope con you into compliance … just for a moment.

From 20,000-year-old cave paintings in the Dordogne, to today’s street art in Glasgow, from El Greco's faces flickering like candles, to Botticelli's Cupid shooting his arrow blindfolded, and sultry Art Nouveau that make me mutter "m-m-m-much more Mucha" — these are a few favorite artistic moments that await travelers to Europe.

I recently completed the final shoot for a new television series about European art. As we filmed the last tiny pieces, it felt like finishing a massive puzzle: a saint riddled with arrows, a hidden self-portrait, pudgy winged babies, a six-year-old prince painted looking impossibly good on a horse, a fanciful castle that earned a romantic king the nickname "Mad," and abstract art looking like how atonal music sounds. Now that puzzle is complete. The story of Europe is told through its art, and it is ready for you to enjoy.

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(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV 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 rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)

©2022 Rick Steves. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

(c)2022 RICK STEVES DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

 

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