By Emma Caylor ’16
Photo by Emma Caylor ’16
Theoretically, I stand in the gallery that houses one of the most iconic paintings of all time, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The signs outside this particular room in the Uffizi said that this was the Botticelli exhibit. However, the only thing I see is a roiling mass of tourists. I have discovered being short is a slight issue in these sorts of crowds. With enough meek mumbles of, “Scusi, permesso, scusi,” I worked my way towards the eye of the camera flash storm. From my new vantage point, I caught a momentary full-view of the masterpiece.
While amazing to see a piece of art that I had only ever encountered before in art history textbooks, the overall atmosphere of the gallery poisoned the moment. After nearly two hours of navigating the Uffizi, I was growing tired of the tourists. It may seem strange for me to be frustrated with a group to which I belonged, but allow me to set up the scenario.
We arrived at the Uffizi around 9 am and the group was still adjusting to the time change from Hiram, Ohio to Florence, Italy. Back home, it was 3 am and we should have been soundly sleeping. Yet, we were in the thick of the city and listening to the din of construction and shouted conversations in an amalgamation of languages. Despite the feelings of disorientation, I was thrilled to see the great pieces of art that were constantly used as examples of Medieval, Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque styles. I have been studying art history since second grade, so finally seeing these pieces felt like the culmination of over a decade of work.
Upon entering the gallery, we were faced with immense paintings by Cimabue and Giotto featuring the Madonna and Child in adoration. These pieces towered over the crowds, which were already forming, and made evident the shifts in style from Medieval-Byzantine to Early Renaissance. The figures become more realistic in their forms and anatomy, the composition shifts to a more complicated set-up featuring overlapping shapes, and the space the figures occupy becomes more convincing, demonstrating a more advanced understanding of perspective. Listen to any of the tour guides, no matter what language you speak, and that is what you will hear. Seeking escape from the groups set on seeing the major works they were supposed to, Chris Ryan, our professor, dismissed us all to begin our assignment for the day. The goal of visiting the Uffizi was to gather inspiration for unique compositional arrangements and recontextualizing them for the modern world.
As I moved from room to room, examining the various pieces and styles, I was struck by the cold, mechanical movements of the crowds. I could not focus on the behavior of any one crowd-member as they all carried on in the same fashion. First, the target piece of art would be located. The crowd then sways over, drawing their cameras from various pouches. The crowd positions itself over the railing barriers, snapping the best shots of the painting that they can. An alarm sounds, signaling the crowd got too close. The security person looks annoyed, but says nothing. Violent lights explode from the cameras, shutters slamming down, and alarms sound faintly in the distance. The guard now calls out, “SILENCE, PLEASE. NO FLASH. Silenzio, per favore. Senza flash.” The crowd recoils, taking a final picture of the name plate. Repeat for each painting, sculpture, and drawing. I wonder why they bother visiting the gallery if they only want to photograph the pieces and move on. They could get far better quality images and explanations in a book or online.
However, there does seem to be a solution. When I was working on sketching out compositional arrangements, I attracted a small crowd. Onlookers would creep over my shoulder, perplexed at my activities. Obviously, if someone was taking their time to draw a piece, it must be an important one. The onlookers would actually look at the painting then, sans camera. They critically studied the work, the name plate, and then returned to my sketch, nodding their heads in understanding and moving on to the next conquest. I wish I had had the time to sketch every piece in that gallery, so that each piece could have been truly looked at.
I had time to pop into the Botticelli exhibit for only five minutes or so, certainly not enough time for me to find a space of reprieve and sketch the composition. In fact, when I did try to bring out my sketchbook, I was glared at, shoved, and knocked out of my place. Apparently my handful of seconds to snap a picture had passed, it was time for me to move on.