We’ve all seen them: the books about the touristy city we’re visiting (on the Grand Tour, perhaps?). They are generally in a wire rack, sitting beside the plaster statues of the tower of Pisa, the brass replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the I ❤ New York t-shirts or whatever serves as a knickknack souvenir for the city you’re visiting. The place to find these things is usually a hole in the wall store about twenty feet deep and just wide enough for one person to slip between the colorful rows of merchandise.
The books are usually, and for some reason known only to the creators of tourist books, given a dust cover of thick transparent plastic, the literary equivalent of coke-bottle glasses and visible from a mile off.
As far as I can tell, the main purpose of these books in the stores is to gather dust, remind people what city they’re in and also to ensure that the rights owners of sepia-toned photographs of the city as it was will continue to receive royalties.
My parents stocked up quite a number of these in the early eighties. They were placed in the library… and continued to gather dust (the books, not my parents).
One day, I was in an Italian mood. An idea for a novel set in Italy just before the First World War had been buzzing about in my head for ages, so I was grabbing anything Italian I could get my hands on. I’ve already spoken about one of the books I read, and another came off the pile of souvenir books.
The one I picked up happened to be Florence, the City and its Art by Luciano Berti. As I read, the book surprised me. It seemed a bit too erudite to belong to this subcategory. It truly was a history of the city, but no less of its leading families, so long intertwined with the world of renaissance art. There were no recommendations for popular places of entertainment, no pandering to the least common denominator.
It’s not surprising when one thinks about it. Berti, after all, is a reasonably eminent art historian, so his work was always going to be a bit challenging for the average Hawaiian-Shirt-clad tourist, but more of a mystery is why the publisher decided such a book might be a good idea.
I have two theories regarding that last point. The first is that they truly wanted to show the value of Florence as a cultural gem of the world. The second is the Berti was the lowest bidder and they cynically speculated that no one would open the thing.
I’ll leave the decision regarding which is true up to you, but I’m delighted they chose the path they did. There are many worse ways to spend a couple of lunchtimes than to become immersed in the wonderful world of renaissance art.
I’m sure there are many of those books in your home. One never actually buys them, of course, but they seem to accumulate anyway. Do yourself a favor and read one. Maybe you’ll get as lucky as I did.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel The Malakiad deals with a very different kind of tourism. In the Greek heroic era it was usually advisable to do one’s touring well-armed and with a bunch of military-minded friends…