The Pioneers

By Malkin, Roy | UNESCO Courier, July-August 1999 | Go to article overview

The Pioneers


Malkin, Roy, UNESCO Courier


Once upon a time there were travellers. . . . Then, in the 19th century, a ferment of social and economic change ushered in the tourist revolution

Art, like other potent substances, should be consumed in moderation.This conclusion is to be drawn from the experience of the French novelist Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783-1842) who, while visiting Florence in 1817, emerged from the church of Santa Croce in an extremely shaky condition.

"I was already in a kind of ecstasy," he wrote, "by the idea of being in Florence, and the neighbourhood of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I saw it in close-up, I touched it so to speak. I had reached that point of emotion where the heavenly sensations provided by the fine arts meet passionate feelings. On leaving Santa Croce, I had palpitations; all the life went out of me, as I walked I was afraid I would fall."

This is the first description of what Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini named "the Stendhal syndrome", a profound psychological disturbance triggered by exposure to a work of art. Symptoms may include dizzy spells, loss of the sense of identity and orientation, depression and even physical exhaustion, This kind of cultural overdose, for which the only known cure is rest, reportedly affects a handful of foreign tourists in Florence each year. According to Magherini, who has written a book on the subject, the ingredients are "an impressionable personality, the stress of travel and the encounter with a city like Florence haunted by ghosts of the great, death and the perspective of history."

Tourism picks up steam

The Stendhal syndrome is not the only experience shared by modern cultural tourists and wayfarers of the past.

In fact, there is nothing new about sightseeing. Travel guides proliferated in Greek Antiquity, and the Hellenistic world's taste for tourist attractions (mirabilia) was reflected in the invention of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Neither is souvenir hunting an invention of modern travellers. The Greeks who consulted the Oracle at Delphi or Dodona, like the medieval Christian pilgrims who trod the highways and byways of Europe, bore relics in which there was a profitable trade.

The dehumanizing effects of modern travel? Long before cars and Concordes John Ruskin condemned 30-m.p.h train travel as "a matter . . . to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel." And even before that, William Wordsworth had decried "pilgrims of fashion hurried along in their carriages".

The tourist as a figure for satire? How about Mrs Clack in Samuel Foote's play A Trip to Calais (1776), who was amazed at how well the French spoke French?

Interactive tourist guides? As early as the 1840s Karl Baedeker was urging readers of his handbooks to write in with their suggestions for future issues.

The list could go on.

Who was the first cultural tourist? Ulysses? Alexander the Great? Julius Caesar? Perhaps they, like the Venetian merchant Marco Polo and the great voyagers of the European Renaissance who journeyed "to make Christians and seek spices", were essentially business travellers. The great 14th-century Arab traveller Ibn Batutah is a stronger candidate. He covered some 120,000 km in the Islamic countries and went as far afield from his birthplace, Tangier, as China and Sumatra, "for the joy of learning about new countries and new peoples".

More recent cultural travellers were the sprigs of the English aristocracy who went on the Grand Tour of continental Europe, a flexible itinerary usually including visits to Paris and the main Italian cities. According to Thomas Nugent, author of The Grand Tour (1749), this was a custom "visibly tending to enrich the mind with knowledge, to rectify the judgment, to remove the prejudices of education, to compose the outward manners, and in a word form the complete gentleman". …

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