When you are getting ready for a trip to Italy, what are you looking forward to the most?
The art, the history, the nature, the food? The beauty of it all? Plus, the opportunity, of course, to escape the daily grind and replace it with something that touches you deeply on many levels and yet you don’t know how exactly to put it into words?
Italy offers so many things to different people. It has so many facets to meet so many emotional needs – from the need for beauty to the need for good, fresh, seasonal nourishment. And while travel writers and media often talk about all the good things that Italy has to give, there is one thing that’s rarely mentioned and yet, come to think of it, it’s the most precious and the most important travel experience of them all.
What is it?!
I’ll tell you straight away! It’s the opportunity to look slowly.
Gosh! You may say back to me! That’s it?! That’s it all?! I come here for sound travel tips and to find out the best things to do in Venice and how to see the most in the span of a day and yet, you are telling me that all I have to do in Italy is to look slowly?! But I want to see it all! And I only have like … (fill in the gap) days to spare. Where to find the time to look slowly at all?! Have you gone mad?
And then I will reply to you: ‘No, not at all! I am not mad, yet. Let me tell you a little story…
They say that the more you look, the more you see. Do we agree on this? And, yet, what would happen if you kept looking at many different things all at the same time? Like if you kept scrolling down your phone looking at status updates on Facebook and perfect photos on Instagram and then you jumped over to the news and then you checked your emails and then you checked the news again, and then you came across this blog post.
You looked a lot but how much did you see?
There is a painting in a church in Italy. Yes, there are many paintings in many churches all over Italy. This one is special though. Because I stopped in front of it and looked at it. Many times. Over many years.
The first time I was forced to do it. Not in a bad way, more like I couldn’t ignore the person who stopped me in my tracks and made me look. My family – my husband, our daughter, and I – had just moved to live in Italy and we were sightseeing in our new city. There is that church there, one of many in fact, that’s a must-see.
So, we went to see it. It was enormous inside. Ah, here is a painting on my right-hand side and here is another on my left-hand side. OK, there is another and yet another. Let’s move on!
‘Signora!’, a quiet voice said. I looked up. A smiling old man was standing in front of me. He volunteered at the church, he told me, helping guide the visitors. I smiled politely and got ready to move on so as to see more and do more in this new Italian city.
‘Look at the eyes of Our Lord, signora!’, the old man was not put off by my insincere smile or the small gesture I made to indicate that I was on the move and couldn’t stop to chat. ‘Look!’, he said pointing to a massive painting standing on an intricately carved altar.
‘See how His eyes look at you and follow you around no matter where you stand in the church?!’
‘Yeah, yeah!’, I said, starting to make a move, and then I looked. Gosh, it was true! The eyes of the painted Christ did seem to look pensively at me no matter from which angle I was looking back at him. I experimented for a bit. Moved around in front of the painting. A bit to the left, a bit to the right. He kept looking at me.
No, I didn’t have a sudden religious awakening. That’s not that type of blog and I am not that type of person. I was brought up as an atheist in a strictly atheist society. I have a complex relationship with religion and if you press me, I may define myself as a cultural Christian (is there such a thing at all?!) but most probably I will avoid replying at all.
So, yes, I didn’t have a religious awakening but my eyes opened up a bit to art. I started to look! And I looked. And I looked. And I looked!
I kept looking at the same painting every time that I went back to that church. I became quite well acquainted with it. Every time that I looked at it, I saw something new. My field of vision expanded and from looking just at Christ’s eyes, I started taking in the painting’s colours, shapes, and outlines.
I noticed the voluminous robes of the three angels, their delicate hands, and their perfect hair – smooth on top and ending in long curls. I marvelled at the crystal clear water of the river running behind Jesus’s formidable biceps. And I admired how unperturbed he looked even though a bowl of water had just been splashed over his head by St. John the Baptist with the droplets producing what to some may appear to be a halo and to others a harbinger of Christ’s Passion – the forthcoming crown of thorns.
Then, one day, for the first time, I saw the similarity between the shape of the hills in the background of the painting and the hills at the base of which the Italian city where I lived spread out.
Months and years afterwards and after much looking at paintings and other forms of art around Italy, I began to understand better the theme and form of this particular painting that had started me on the path of looking. It depicted the Baptism of Christ. And, then, every time that I came across other works by the same artist who painted it, I began to try and define for myself in my own words what made his style so special.
This gradation from looking to actually seeing and putting in words took a long time. During our first years in Italy, I was time-rich but very poor in friends. I had tried to make friends with some American and Italian ladies in town and was rejected by both groups.
I didn’t belong. I was the odd one out. I didn’t go to church to pray and to listen to mass. I went there to look at paintings. ‘We’ve grown up with these paintings in this church, we don’t notice them that much!’, said to me a mum at my child’s nursery when I had excitedly started to talk to her about a painting I had seen.
‘So, you speak Bulgarian?! Is this like Russian?’, an American lady asked me outright. ‘They are different languages’, I said, ‘but linguistically they are quite close.’ She never contacted me again even though she had reached out to me through my blog and had insistently asked me to meet and have coffee.
You could tell that at the time I didn’t have a community but I had my eyes. And I started to use them to look. Slowly, deeply, taking the small details in. Often returning to the same place time and time again to see it from different angles. I started carrying my camera with me everywhere I went. After a couple of years, I suddenly realised that I didn’t even own a proper handbag. My camera bag had become a constant no matter what I was wearing or where I was going – a museum or a beach.
My camera lens had become my most important tool. I looked and I saw and I took photos. From intricate wrought-iron details to seasonal flowers in bloom, from imposing historic buildings lit up by the crisp October light to lively markets with stalls laden with fresh produce, from hidden corners to major landmarks, I looked and I looked.
It so happened that the last year that we spent in Italy, my child’s school held its Christmas concert in that same church where I had started on my journey of looking slowly in Italy. As the crowd of parents rushed inside trying to grab a chair in the front rows, I made my way to stand by my painting – Giovanni Bellini’s Baptism of Christ in the Church of Santa Corona in Vicenza.
The eyes of Christ looked at the children – all wearing white jumpers and red Christmas hats. And as they launched into a joyous, inspired, and slightly discordant rendition of Gloria in Excelsis Deo, I looked quickly up at the painting and feeling like I was standing next to an old friend, I turned to look at my child in the choir and like a proud mum, I dabbed with tissue at the corner of my eyes.
What’s the point of it all, you may say?!
The point is that today we are bombarded with images but we rarely stop to look slowly at them. Our attention is always slightly off-focus and we are forever ready to move on to the next image bringing the next dose of visual information which we will take in but not quite fully.
I started to look at art all those years ago in Italy and after a long time of looking and describing in words what I saw – both in my mind and on this blog – now I have started on a new visual and writing journey – a certificate in the history of art at the University of Oxford.
If you are suffering from all this visual overload and if you are planning a visit to Italy, then this is the perfect opportunity to practice a bit of slow looking. Italy is a particularly suitable place to stop and look. From the beauty of its nature to the beauty of its art, here you can easily find something to train your eyes on and simply look at.
Here are five tips on how to do it:
Looking Slowly in Italy – 5 Tips for the Best Italian Travel Experience
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1. Talk to People
Looking starts with making a connection.
Don’t be afraid to approach the people who work in the churches and museums you visit during your time in Italy. Often, they are incredible sources of little-known information about the artistic riches in front of you.
I would have missed a beautiful icon by Paolo Veneziano of the Madonna and Christ holding a poppy in the pictured above Venetian Church of San Pantalon had it not been for the church’s custodian who pointed it out to me.
Even though I was standing right next to it, I would have missed noticing Canaletto’s tomb in the Venetian Church of San Lio had it not been for the kind lady working there. She specifically told me to turn around and look at it.
2. Don’t See Too Much
Avoid hectic sightseeing. It’s best to see one thing and see it properly, i.e. by taking your time to actually look at it rather than rushing like mad from sight to sight just to say that you have been there.
Look through your travel plans for Italy. Keep the places that appeal to you on a personal level and cull the places you are visiting just because you are expected to see them.
I used to be the world’s most hectic sightseer. If I didn’t see it all, do it all, I felt like I hadn’t been properly there. It took me years of actively trying to actually slow down and experience things fully and with intent.
Take the Porta della Carta pictured above. I had passed by it many times in Venice without even giving it a second look. Yet, it occupies a prime position in the City of Canals – right between the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark. One day I took a slow, deliberate exploration of St. Mark’s Square – a place that it’s so overexposed in photos that even without ever being there you feel like you know it as the palm of your hand.
One hour of slow looking revealed to me so many hidden gems with centuries-old stories and captivating details that were like an open book – just waiting for you to stop and start to read.
3. Leave When You Start to Feel Overwhelmed
You know that moment when all the paintings in an art gallery start to feel like a colourful blur?! Don’t let it get to this stage. When you are starting to feel overawed and overwhelmed by all the art around you, be brave and leave.
A bit of prior planning is always useful. If you are going to a famous and busy art gallery or museum in Italy, then have a preliminary plan in your mind about what you want to see. Focus on it, leave a bit of space for any other paintings or artefacts that may jump out at you, and then head out to relax, so that the memories and impressions have time to form and develop in your head.
I have always been one of those people who have to see every single painting in a room and every single artefact in a display. From every possible angle! I had a serious case of overwhelm after visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I stopped in front of every painting and afterwards, apart from three paintings that are worldwide famous, I couldn’t remember what I actually saw.
The second time that I visited this absolutely fantastic art gallery, I was much more selective and strict with myself. I saw some divine art, I looked at it, and it’s still imprinted in my mind.
So, nowadays, I make sure that I take regular breaks. I sit down in a small cafe, have a proper Italian coffee, a light bite to eat, and I just watch the world go by. It’s a very relaxing way to look and to passively engage with the Italy of today while letting the impressions accumulated during an art gallery or a museum visit get settled in my head.
4. Seek Peace
To look slowly, you need peace. You don’t want to be pushed around by the crowds or jostled by passers-by. So, seek places off the beaten track, places where it will be just you and the view you want to train your eyes on.
This view could be of a beautiful painting, of a unique church, of a spectacular corner of nature or something completely different. Italy has so much to offer to the person who wants to look slowly that you will never be short of options. Even right next to Italy’s busiest spots you can find peace and quiet to focus on looking and experiencing.
I have said many times on this blog that I love Venice. And even though Venice is one of the cities in the world with the highest footfall, there are so many corners in this gorgeous city where you can enjoy solitude. Take the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. So easy to reach from St. Mark’s Square, so peaceful, and offers so much art to look at. You can sit, you can look, and you can have your most meaningful experience in Venice without having to battle the crowds.
5. Always Return
You know the old adage: Rome wasn’t built in a day. As such, you cannot expect to see everything that Italy has to offer in a short amount of time. I lived there for six years, I visited hundreds of villages, towns, and cities, and I feel I only scratched the surface.
So, try to return. Make sure that you return. Time and time again. Revisit Italy, see it through new eyes, in a different season, in the company of different people or completely by yourself. If you are looking slowly, you will see new things every single time.
Find your own (figuratively speaking) painting to look at and see how it will evolve in front of your eyes and what lessons it will teach you about yourself, about relationships, about life, and above all about your power to observe and see the world – static and ever-changing, full of subtle nuances and figures that are larger-than-life – all of which make it such an exciting place to live in.
Thank you for reading!
Enjoy looking slowly in Italy!
Now, Get Ready Quick for Your Trip to Italy
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More Helpful Italy Info for You
Best of Italy: Italy Gift Guide, Italian Piazzas, Italian Markets, Accommodation for Every Budget, Best Times to Visit Italy, Italy in Summer, Italy with Kids
Italian Food: Best Italian Food Gifts, Cheap Italian Food, Rules of Italian Breakfast, Italian Breakfast Foods
Italian Coffee: Italian Coffee Culture, Italian Coffee Drinks, History of Coffee in Italy
Christmas in Italy: Fun Facts, Things to Do, Italian Nativity Scenes, Panettone, Christmas Guide
Northern Italy: Best Cities to Visit, Major Airports, Reasons to Visit
Lake Como: Things to See, Nesso
Lake Garda Towns and Villages: Best Towns, Desenzano del Garda, Riva del Garda, Malcesine, Torri del Benaco, Punta di San Vigilio, Campo di Brenzone, Borghetto and Valeggio sul Mincio
Visiting Lake Garda: Map of Lake Garda, Getting Around Lake Garda, Lake Garda with Kids, 8 Best Airports, Venice to Lake Garda, Verona to Lake Garda, Milan to Lake Garda, Bologna to Lake Garda
Venice: Essential Tips, Things to Do, Major Landmarks, Hidden Gems, How to Navigate Venice, Venice in a Day for Art Lovers, Haunted Venice, Beaches of Venice, Quotes about Venice, Boats in Venice, Day Trips from Venice, Dorsoduro, Arco del Paradiso, Train Stations, Nearest Airports, Best Tours
Verona: Things to Do in One Day, Verona Opera Festival, Day Trips from Verona, Romeo and Juliet Itinerary, Verona to Venice, Verona to Milan
Padua: Things to Do in One Day, 101 Facts About Padua, 10 Reasons to Visit Padua, Day Trips from Padua
Vicenza: Things to Do, Day Trips from Vicenza, Best Museums, The Beauty of Vicenza
Veneto: Top Places to Visit, Unique Adventures, Most Colourful Places, Mysterious Places, Most Beautiful Lakes, Reasons to Visit, Main Cities, Prettiest Small Towns, Most Beautiful Villages
Lombardy: Best Cities and Towns, Reasons to Visit, Brescia
Friuli Venezia Giulia: Venzone, Most Beautiful Villages
Emilia Romagna: Bologna, Ravenna, Comacchio, Most Beautiful Villages
Marche: Reasons to Visit, Gradara, Frasassi Caves, Temple of Valadier
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