Probably the main reason that I write about experiencing art through travel is that being brought to museums in Europe as a child is what got me interested in art in the first place. I’ve always associated travel in Europe with exploring museums, cathedrals and other historic buildings. As a young teenager, I used my art history textbook to guide my mother and me around France, enjoying telling her about the art we’d basically gone on a pilgrimage to see.

My mom and I often have discussed the issue: “Why is it better to see art in person than in reproductions?” (Yes, dinner table discussion in my family can be pretty deep.) This is a question that has been treated by numerous theorists and I can’t say that I’ve ever fully understood it. I’m not at all theoretical; my approach to art is through experience and through historical knowledge, so using these, I’ve decided to tackle this big issue today.

The occasion for this reflection is the Italy Blogging Roundtable, a monthly series in which we write articles on a shared topic. This month, we’ve teamed up with the COSI Roundtable, and the two groups are talking about authenticity. Let’s think about what that word might mean in relation to both travel and art.

Authenticity in art and travel

Authenticity is something of a catch-word in tourism: we’re always looking for the most “authentic experience” possible, and tour operators are just too happy to help us. We try to “travel like locals,” support artisans, eat genuine food and all that good stuff.

In the art world, the word “authentic” generally refers to certified authorship, like when they discover a painting that may be by Leonardo da Vinci; an expert willing to go on the record, backed up perhaps by DNA tests or carbon dating, declares it to be authentically by that artist. That’s called “art authentication” and it’s important for paintings to be authenticated if the owner wants to either insure or sell it. Authentication, and thus placement within the canon of art and art history, is connected to economic value as well as cultural value: people flock to see the original Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but would they travel to see a reproduction of it?

Let’s think for a moment about what an “authentic art experience” looks like when we’re talking about art and travel. After much reflection, I’m defining it as in-person experience of seeing and taking in original art, in museums or in its original location. Connected with an “art experience”, you could substitute the word “authentic” with others: important, life-changing, arresting. My definition is quite precise: I think it involves original art, not reproductions; and I wrote that it involves seeing but also “taking in”, because just being in the room and looking at art does not mean we let ourselves absorb and be moved by it.

Feel the power

There are some “ooh” and “ah” moments when you see certain works of art in person. I can’t explain it, but hope it’s happened to you at some point so you’ll know what I mean. Two works that I’ve found incredibly engaging in person are the Arnolfini Wedding (at the National Gallery in London), and Giorgione’s The Tempest (Venice, Accademia). These are two works that are famous, that we regularly see in reproduction; that we might admire academically but that you just need to stand in front of and get into a dialogue with them to fully appreciate their power.

Giortione, The Tempest. Reproduction does not do it justice.
Giortione, The Tempest. Reproduction does not do it justice.

In both cases I remember being literally arrested in front of them. They sneak up on you in the gallery and you’re like… “woah.” The scale of reproductions, in wall-sized projected slides or miniaturized in books, left me unprepared for the discreet monumentality of these works in real life. If I had to describe the feeling, it would be one of being transported or transfixed. These are sensations that almost can’t be explained, though I will try.

Authentic art experiences and mental health

Florence, as you know, is the home of Stendhal Syndrome. The 19th-century writer got overwhelmed when visiting the church of Santa Croce, experiencing heart palpitations and fear of fainting. According to The Telegraph, even nowadays, “staff at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to dealing with tourists suffering from dizzy spells and disorientation after admiring the statue of David, the masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery and other treasures of the Tuscan city.” While the cynic in me would attribute this to the lack of air-conditioning, we all know there’s truth in it.

Dr. Graziella Magherini, whose research comes out of that hospital, published a book on Stendhal Syndrome in 1989. She defines three ingredients: (1) the stress of travel, (2) a receptive soul, and (3) experiencing great art. Florence is where the Syndrome happens most often, according to the doctor, because “we have the greatest concentration of Renaissance art in the world. People seldom see just a single work, but overload themselves with hundreds of masterpieces in a short period.” Particularly, Renaissance, and not contemporary art, is a catalyst, explains the doctor in an interview:

“Beneath these splendid forms are extremely powerful nuclei of communication, which can cause conflicts and disturbances in the psyche of the sensitive observer. This is why Renaissance art is so striking. It is often a detail that does it, as in Botticelli’s Spring or The Birth of Venus. Have you noticed the wind, the motion of the sea? These details allow you to understand how many disturbing elements underlie this beautiful form… This is very different for modern, conceptual art. There are very few people who understand the message, because they do not know the code. Once they understand the code, a disturbance could theoretically occur and the message might be capable of striking something deep in the observer, but I have not yet seen it happen.”

Understanding the art – my “looking at and taking in” – is an essential part to Stendhal Syndrome, which interestingly affects travelers of European and Japanese origin the most, probably due to cultural affinity and study of art. Which makes me wonder a few things: if instances of this happening have gone down in recent years as the quality of arts education declines; and if instances are steady throughout the year, or are more present in tourist low season, when those lucky travelers have more quiet, reflective opportunities in which to take in art.

Botticelli Room at Uffizi | Photo Flickr user Marlo Vere
Botticelli Room at Uffizi | Photo Flickr user Marlo Vere

I also wonder what happens when we as a group fetishize the experience of seeing a work of art in person to the point that the crowd blocks you from generating a meaningful contact with it. How many people truly swoon in front of the Mona Lisa now? Or in front of the Botticelli mentioned by Dr. Magherini when you can barely see it for the sea of cameras and the green glass that blocks it.

Digital vs. Seeing art in person

Perhaps, then, it would be better to just look at a good digital reproduction. Google Art Project allows us to virtually walk through the world’s art galleries and zoom in on high-resolution photographs. Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington says of the technology: “The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can’t be seen in the gallery itself… Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing.” (source; italics mine)

Hand of Flora in Botticelli's Birth of Venus, zoomed in on Google Art Project
Hand of Flora in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, zoomed in on Google Art Project

So, is it about the essence of the artist? Is that what we’re perceiving when we engage with a work of art in person? I asked my colleague Mary Gray how she thinks art and travel are related and she said: “both are creative experiences.” I think this is interesting: seeing art in person perhaps generates a creative link to the past.

In recently published scientific research, 302 subjects were told the story of and shown an original hand-painted work and also an exact replica painted after it. Participants found the original painting more valuable because the artist “poured his soul into it.” The soul, apparently, lacks in the replica. The hand of the artist exists only in the work of art that has been “authenticated” (see above) – a unique combination of the genius and the manual. An experiment currently underway at London’s Dulwich Gallery challenges visitors to find which painting in their museum has been replaced by a replica made in China (correct guesses ironically can win a print-on-demand reproduction).

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, replicas did not get such a bad rap. Rather than transmitting the genius of the artist, a concept that we can attribute to the Late Renaissance, paintings in the Early Modern period were considered “surrogates for what they represent” (says Hans Belting in his landmark book Likeness and Presence). A painted icon of the Virgin Mary works miracles because it embodies the Virgin herself.

Bernardo Daddi "Madonna and Child with Angels", Orsanmichele
Bernardo Daddi “Madonna and Child with Angels”, Orsanmichele

When a frescoed miracle-working Madonna in Orsanmichele was victim to fire in 1304, another Madonna was commissioned to replace her; stylistically outdated, a third version was commissioned to Bernardo Daddi in 1347. Every successive Madonna was just as valued by the people for it capacity to work miracles. Similarly, back in 2005, I wrote about how printed copies could carry the same power as original paintings, so that a print after an important icon could work the same miracles at a distance, in this case despite the intervening hand of an artist (see Creativity, Authenticity and the Copy in Early Print Culture).

If a copy or replica was good enough to work miracles back in the Renaissance, how did we get to where we are now, in a culture in which the original is valued above all? I’d propose a few factors, namely: the culture of individuality and genius that is prized in many modern Western cultures, especially American culture; and the need to determine at least some points of authenticity in a world of infinite technological solutions.

Concluding questions

These reflections have raised more questions than they have answered. I think we can agree that there’s an almost inexplicable draw of the original artwork that makes us want to travel to dialogue with it in person. When there is only one authentic work, there’s an exclusivity to this privilege, one that we want to experience but we also want to boast about through the way we share our experiences online (like with museum selfies).

But what is an “authentic art experience”? I think this is a definition that is in flux. First, with the rise of mass travel, the Stendhal-Syndrome-causing way of taking in art is harder and harder to come by. Maybe it will die out altogether, or it will stop happening in Florence and only be possible in say, remote Croatia. Second, thanks to digital technologies, as Alli Burness has pointed out to me, the line between digital and in-person experience is becoming ever-more blurry. As we digitally enhance so much of our lives, the way we interact with “originals” is bound to change.

Roundtable posts on Authenticity

This article is part of a monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, in which six female bloggers share their takes on a topic. This month we’ve expanded to collaborate with members of another great roundtable called COSI in order to get even more perspectives on the matter.


Further academic reading

If my 2000 words wasn’t enough, you’ll want to dig deeper with these classics on the matter.

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