Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad is an entertaining story about foreign travel tales. Through his European travels, he depicts life across physical and cultural boarders, often questioning the meaning behind these new places and experiences. The end of his trip brings him to Italy where he visits Milan, Venice, Rome, and Florence – all Italian cities that I myself have visited over the past two months. The experience he recalls in Florence, I believe, can be considered a prime example of the type of questions considered throughout his travels – questions that make you think more deeply about the travel experience, maybe not quite as pessimistically as Twain does, but they do make you think.
In Florence, Twain visits the Uffizi Gallery – arguably one of the greatest art galleries in Europe, but without question the greatest in Florence. The number of masterpieces and great Italian history lining the walls is truly overwhelming. While in the gallery Twain visits one of these great masterpieces – Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” (Pictured above) Its erotic nature is uncommon compared to most art in this time, and this overt sexuality seems to throw Twain off. He describes the painting as, “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” Though this is certainly an exaggeration, as I can think of many more obscene and vile images in the world, I think Twain’s description is emphasizing the juxtaposition of this image with the religious or “fig-covered” artwork typical of this time and this museum. Furthermore, I think he is getting at the way tourists and locals alike revere this image as a beautiful masterpiece when in reality, this image was a gift from the Duke of Urbino to his young wife, who he married when she was just 10 years old, to remind her of her wifely duties, including that of eroticism and fidelity.
Twain’s emphasis on the grotesque connotations of this image, though somewhat overdramatized by his terms, made me question why people everywhere flock to see this image. Do they really know anything about it or do they just visit these galleries, churches, etc. because someone told them to? I think this mentality can be applied to tourist attractions across the globe. People, myself included, often see things just because someone deemed them famous, without really understanding the meaning or story behind them. I don’t think this ignorance is purposeful, it is simply easy to get caught up in the idea of travel but forget the reasoning behind it. Obviously this is not the case everywhere or with every tourist, but it has definitely made me stop and think about why I visit certain places. I need to remind myself to see the entire story of a place or thing, rather than viewing it as just another place to check off my list. After all, considering the entire meaning of a place or thing is what makes travel experiences so valuable.