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The Art of Observing

Posted on Nov 11, 2008 | 7 comments

During my little trip to the Vatican last week, I took a spin around the Pinacoteca, which is the amazing painting gallery there that is normally not very crowded. Most people whiz right toward the Vatican and ignore it, but here you’ll find a treasure trove of Giotto, Caravaggio, Raphael, and Leonardo. It was an interesting experience for me taking my camera there to shoot photos for the blog. I am an art historian and so normally when I step into a space like this, it’s all about me observing the art and my experience with the art. Good art has the power to move you and when it does, it’s an incredible experience, one that makes me remember why I fell in love with art history in the first place. This time, however, I took a step back and decided to observe people as they observed the art. What were they doing? I’m not ecstatic about the photos and how they came out, but it’s a starting point and a good point of discussion at least. Unfortunately what I saw made me a bit annoyed, as you will see a woman talking on her cell phone in front of Raphael’s Transfiguration. This is the Transfiguration people! The last work every completed by this master before he died and you are on the phone? This is not the place to be on the phone. I’m as technology obsessed as the next person, but these types of spaces are sacred. How can you possibly connect with a piece of art when you aren’t really even engaging it. It’s not just the woman on the phone, you will also see the couple that took a photo of themselves standing in front of every painting they saw. (There photo is not that great, but it was my only opportunity to snap without being obvious). Do you think these people even know what they are standing in front of?

My wish for more people is that they would just go somewhere like this and simply observe. I know it’s not a normal thing to do in this day and age, but don’t be concerned with whether something is famous or not, don’t look at the label and have that be the deciding factor in whether you like something or not. Go in, look, feel…this is the most important thing. Don’t listen to what people tell you that you “should” see, go toward what attracts you, as this is what you will remember. Otherwise it’s not even worth entering. Anyway, this is an interesting theme for me and something I will try to do more of. At least it will be an excuse to visit great museums!


  1. It’s a wonderful gallery, at first sight I thought it was mumuseum.
    Thoes paintings are impressive.

  2. That was one of my favorite parts of the Vatican Museum.

    That woman on the phone is annoying. I doubt it was an emergency. I’m glad I wasn’t there. If someone doesn’t care about the art…don’t go. They shouldn’t ruin the moment for other people by yapping on the damn phone. grrrr.

  3. Nobu – It’s really fantastic there and it’s amazing to think that this is just a taste of what’s available in the Vatican. It’s worth the admission just to see them!

    Nyc – Believe me, I had to remove my impulses to shake that woman. Definitely not an emergency, she was all casual about it. I just think of it in this way—that it’s a real shame they won’t ever get the feeling of really experiencing the art because they are so caught up in themselves, sad if you think about it.

  4. Hi, I’m an art historian too (well I used to be, now I’m a sahm) and I really like this post. When I taught, the hardest thing for me to impart to my students was how to look, or even just to look. Most people just move through life passively. Put them in a museum and they never connect with what they see. What a shame, because, as you say, great art has the power to move us.

  5. KC – All too true. It’s funny because in many cases during everyday life, I probably pass tons of things by. That’s another thing I enjoy about doing this blog, looking through the camera forces you to observe the little things you might otherwise overlook.

  6. I love being in museums when no one is around and I totally agree with you that the Pinacoteca is an overlooked treasure. (Although, I must admit that I love that you can retreat there away the mindless masses and take in some really great art.)

    I’m a fellow art historian, and look forward to more posts like this. I, too, subscribe to the “just look” method and never ever pick up an audio tour when I’m in a museum. You need to absorb and actually look instead of spending your time glued to the wall texts.

  7. Hi Kelly, yes I agree about loving that people aren’t there as well. It’s a double edged sword — you want more people to go, but not tooooo many people. I have to make a delivery tomorrow for a client, so might try to visit a museum while I’m out and make some more observations.

    I too try to stay away from the wall texts, but human nature is funny…it’s really hard not to look! Normally I take my own time to look at the piece first before looking at any labels. Anyway, glad you enjoyed!

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