Each year when we travel to Italy I take a book for the trip. I’m a slow reader so one is all I need. I usually take a novel. Past trip books have included Hemingway, Wendell Barry, Italo Calvino, and Neil Gaiman. The long flight allows me the chance to really get into the story with little interruption, which simply doesn’t happen any other time. This year, however, I took the recommendation of a friend to read The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. It seemed appropriate for what I was doing, but I wasn’t aware of just how specifically it would relate and support the ideas behind these annual trips to Italy.
As a whole, the book is interesting and insightful, giving historical examples of travel as a meaningful part of life along with the author’s own experiences. But one chapter spoke to me more than others. It is titled On Possessing Beauty and centers around the 19th century British artist, teacher, and art critic John Ruskin. De Botton writes, “Ruskin’s interest in beauty and in its possession led him to five central conclusions. First, beauty was the result of a number of complex factors that affected the mind both psychologically and visually. Second, humans had an innate tendency to respond to beauty and to desire to possess it. Third, there were many lower expressions of this desire for possession (including… buying souvenirs…, carving one’s name on a pillar and taking photographs). Fourth, there was only one way to possess beauty properly, and that was by understanding it, by making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it. And last, the most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding was by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”
In Italy we see beauty in so many things and each year we try to bring a little more of it back with us. Not just the souvenirs though they can be amazing reminders of our time there. And not even just in the drawings and paintings. It is the way which we observe life differently over there that we try to bring back. Energy and priorities are put into different places. We pay more attention to how our food is raised, grown and prepared. We see how investment in art, artists, and architecture can not only create culture but sustain it for hundreds of years. And we see how a full appreciation of God's creation comes from enjoying the ways in which we are all different and unique. We can observe all of these things through art making processes which force us to slow down, pay attention, and experience it.
In a couple of weeks I will be traveling to Tokyo, Japan for the first time. No doubt, I will be introduced to an abundance of beauty. Lots of drawing and painting will happen. And as de Botton says, “The finished product may not be marked by genius, but at least it will have been motivated by a search for an authentic representation of an experience.”