Nothing can be more depressing than to encounter a husband who boasts of having seen everything in Rome in three days, while the wife laments that, in recollection she cannot distinguish the Vatican from the Capitol, St Peter’s from St Paul’s.Augustus Hare: Walks in Rome (1893)
I am sure many of the visitors to Italy today still come away with that sensation of having seen too much to digest. There is so much to see that without a sense of purpose you can just get swallowed up. Most of us, not being specialists in art history, structure our excursions by following a well-trodden itinerary of the ‘main sights’ – acknowledging the superior wisdom of the guidebook. Tourists have been ‘doing the sites’ in Italy like this for centu-ries, in search of the curious and the beautiful.But before the tourist came the pilgrim. Long before the grand tour, travellers made a beeline for Italy as the centre of Western Christendom. Lucinda Vardey’s Traveling with the Saints in Italy shows that pilgrimage still has significance to travellers in the 21st century: “As we require a physical vaca-tion and a rest for our bodies, so too do we need the same for our souls.”Vardey’s book takes us to locations that played a central role in the lives of an eclectic selection of saints – from mystic and hermit to practical church reformer – from Saint Benedict, who first established monasticism in Europe to Saint Francis of Assisi, whom she describes as saving the Church from itself through humility at a time when it had ‘become elitist and removed from the needs of the poor.’ She also treats female saints like Catherine of Siena and Saint Francis’s helpmeet, Saint Clare. The book contains suggestions for meditations and intentions to give further purpose to the pilgrim’s journey,practical information about how to get to the locations, and observations about art and points of local interest.While these itineraries could give an overarching purpose to a journey in Italy, the book does not pretend to be a replacement for a guidebook. The telling of the stories concentrates on reverence rather than historical inquiry. Vardey refuses to go into any controversies over the saints’ lives and works.Much of the art that makes Italy a remarkable destination is religious, so why not acknowledge that? At least spare us from ‘doing the sights’ in the manner of a tourist my father-in-law overheard in the Uffizi. Passing his umpteenth Madonna and Child, the tourist commented to his companion, “Don’t you think it’s sinister, don’t you think it’s a bit sexist – the way the baby in these paintings is always a boy?”Lucinda Vardey will be coming to speak about her book on Sept. 19 at McRae books.