Energized and edified, instead of rubber-kneed and glassy-eyed,

or, strategies for tourism in a city as rich as Rome.

March, 2006

Dan Brown, author of Angels and Demons, went to the same college I did and graduated two years after I did. At the time of this writing, he has published seven more books than I have.  (He has also been sued for plagiarizing in the British judiciary one time more than I have. Poor guy... I hope that turns out ok. But there's "no such thing as bad publicity," right?)

Anyway, Angels and Demons is a delightful book. It is a fast read, and forms a chain of improbabilites sooo long... that it's ticklish to the reader. Another thing I like about it is the splashes of the arcane, evidence of Dan Brown's scholarship, research, and above all, his own delight in puzzles, hidden history, and the span of Western thought.

I have noticed since arriving in Rome last summer how popular themed tours are, Angels-and-Demons-themed tours being just one example. Another example dear to me: I have had the pleasure of helping out on classic-scooter-borne "Roman Holiday" tours, Roman Holiday being the 1950s movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Eddie Arnold. There's also Christian Rome, Rome-by-wine, and so on, ad infinitum.

At first I wondered at the popularity of such themes, but now that I have read A&D and thought to myself how fun it would be to follow Brown's Path of the Illuminati, I had a simple realization: themes like this provide a knob by which to get hold of this city, this "Eternal City," the caput mundi, this city for which "a lifetime is not enough." (This gem is alternately attributed to antiquity, Goethe, Silvio Negro, and one of the Popes called Gregory.) It gives a traveler a starting point, a sequence to follow, and a manageable list of interesting sites to visit and, perhaps best of all, some familiarity with  each. Especially if you have less than a lifetime - a couple of days, for instance - to "allocate" to Rome, how could that not be appealing?

It reminds me of a small-scale approach we used with our then four-year-old daughter in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (Next I'll be writing, nose in air, about having the Queen over for tea or something.) After a while she was starting to lose interest in the whole enterprise. To keep her from losing interest, glazing over, crusting over, even, with a protective shell against the acreage of painting and tonnage of sculpture, we showed her an example of an Annunciation. She was refreshed by the idea of searching for more and sustained by the hunt for pictures of Gabriel telling Mary she was going to be a mom. (She had found five by the time we left.) It seems obvious in retrospect to use such a sorting tool on the overwhelming invetory.

This theme was reinforced that day for me through a nice coincidence: I had recently finished a biography of da Vinci. Thus, when we came across his paintings, it was like finding familiar faces in a crowd. For example, when we came to his Annunciation, I could look at it for particular details: some problems with perspective (it was an early work of his), and the angel's wing tips that had been extended by some artist other than Leonardo. Had I viewed this painting as cursorily as I did hundreds of others, I would not have noticed. It would have added to my sense of numbness rather than having stood out, memorably, and in a way that reinforced my understanding of one of my heroes.

Maybe because of my Yankee upbringing, maybe because of an obsessive streak that shows itself at odd times, I have always felt in some vague and guilt-inspiring way that I have to Appreciate the entirety of the content of collections like the Uffizi. I am recognizing that it is not only presumptuous to think that I could, but also that is is not the way I learn, or, it seems, the way most people learn.

Dan Brown did his homework, and it seems to be helping a lot of people to find the middle path between having to overeat at one of the world's richest buffets and sampling so little of so much that it leaves no good taste. I didn't know how helpful he, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and innumerable other literary, cinematic, historic, viticultural, religious, etc., tourguides could be.

© Max Hall, 2006.                                Back to main page.