Essays About

Crowds and Culture

Before my first visit to Rome, I bought a book surveying the sculptures and paintings of the Vatican Museums. I studied the reproductions, read the commentaries and artist biographies, and learned the history of the museums—readied my mind to enter the holy of holies of Western culture. My actual visit was more productive as a study of crowds than of art. I went in the sweltering heat of mid-July, with Rome under a barbarian invasion of tourists. Unlike my leisurely review of the photographs at home, I had two hours to gulp down the originals amid a standing-room-only crush of twenty thousand visitors. Viewing art in tourist season is like visiting Mount Fuji under low clouds. Thick walls of fellow visitors' heads obscured the bottom halves of statues. Packed tour groups, like colonies of penguins, waddled, not walked, through the halls of tapestries. In the Sistine Chapel, cloaked in a miasma of human body odor, I craned my neck to see on the high ceiling the famous frescoes that at home I had held in my lap. The originals seemed faint copies of their reproductions.

Mobs of humanity consecrate a football game but desecrate an art museum. Besides getting in our way, loud families in matching T-shirts deflate our sense of sophistication as art connoisseurs. As one of the tourists, I had to acknowledge myself a contributor to the annoyed expressions of tour guides and security guards. I noted with displeasure that two of the armpits I smelled were my own. On my pilgrimage to culture, I felt like a philistine.