Travel Guide | New York

Appreciating European Art and Architecture on Study Abroad

You’ve seen endless copies. Now, it’s time to see the originals.

By Sarah Bennett, Muhlenberg College

I grew up with a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night on my bedside table. I loved the vibrant, unexpected colors, the expression in the brushstrokes, and the way the highlights around the stars made them shine like little suns. I fell asleep looking at it every night, and was sure I knew its every detail…

Until I saw it in person.

When I finally made it to the MoMa and looked up at the painting I knew so well, I was in awe. Up close, I could see the thick, layered texture on the canvas, view the powerful force of the lines, and almost feel the fluid motion still present in each sweeping stroke.

After that, I realized that no matter how many times I had seen the print, I never would have understood its true magnificence without viewing it in person.

Those of us studying abroad in Europe have the opportunity to see the most remarkable paintings, sculptures, and buildings brought to life. Even if you’re not a fan of museums, you can still appreciate the artwork and architectural detail present in Europe’s plethora of ancient buildings, cathedrals, and town squares.

Statues and architectural design in Florence's Piazza della Signoria image

Statues and architectural design in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria

Mosaic bench designed by Gaudi, located in Barcelona's Park Guell image

Mosaic bench designed by Gaudi, located in Barcelona’s Park Guell

I’ve learned a few things about European artwork from traveling around this semester. No matter which countries you visit, these tips are good to keep in mind:

Think you’ve seen it all before? Think again.

You’ve seen printed copies of the Mona Lisa a thousand times. Your art teacher has a miniature statue of Michelangelo’s David on his desk. You’ve been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. In other words, you’ve been there, done that, seen it all before…

Except, you haven’t. Not even a little.

Some of the most impressive pieces of art have been so heavily replicated and commercialized that viewing them in their originals is somehow deemed less remarkable. Sometimes, people skip these works because they’ve already seen copied versions, or because they believe they won’t be worth the hype.

The Mona Lisa might not blow you away. You might not care for Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. However, you’ll never know unless you see them for yourself. These pieces became famous for a reason. If you’re already in Europe, don’t miss the opportunity to find out why.

And keep in mind…

Things made in 3D should be viewed in 3D.

And no, I’m not talking about going to the movies with a pair of plastic glasses. No matter how many times you’ve seen pictures of the Venus de Milo or the Eiffel Tower, you won’t get the full effect until you see their entire structure. When I went to the Accademia Gallery in Florence, my friend and I spent about twenty minutes simply walking around Michelangelo’s David. Every muscle was so precisely carved out, yet the sculpture was still flawlessly smooth. These details can’t be portrayed in a two-dimensional photograph.

And on that note, put down the camera.

Sure, you want to take a couple of photos for mom and dad, but you didn’t travel all this way just to snap another picture. We’ve already acknowledged that prints don’t do the original justice, so why waste time trying to take the perfect photo? At the Louvre, people pushed their way to the front of the crowd, took a quick picture of the Mona Lisa, and walked away without glancing at the painting. Photographs are a great way to remember an experience, but they shouldn’t replace it.

Then, after taking a nice, long, camera-free look at da Vinci’s most legendary lady, go explore the rest of the museum – because it isn’t just about the famous artwork.

I’ve used a lot of celebrated pieces of art as examples, but only because they’d be recognizable. In almost every museum, my favorite paintings ended up being ones that I had never heard of before. While I liked The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi, I was more impressed with Marco Benefial’s The Massacre of the Innocents. My friend preferred the sculptures in the Sala della Niobe. Try to discover your own favorites.

And while you’re looking around, remember that the building itself can be the real piece of art.

There are some buildings that you’ll already recognize as art. You know that Buckingham Palace is renowned for its impressive neoclassical architecture, that the Palace of Versailles is famous for its extravagant gilded walls and decadent chandeliers, and that Casa Batillo is beloved for its remarkable wavy façade covered in stone and colored glass.

Gaudi's Casa Batillo in Barcelona image

Casa Batillo’s architectural design is beautiful, unique, and so characteristic of Gaudi.

However, you might be surprised by how many architectural gems you’ll discover by chance. Although I loved Florence’s Piti Palace for its abundance of Renaissance paintings and sculptures, I thought that the building itself was the real treasure. Its beautiful murals, stunning chandeliers, and arched doorways were just as attractive as any of the pieces on display – and don’t even get me started on the gardens outside.

The Boboli Gardens, outside of the Piti Palace image

The Boboli Gardens, outside of the Piti Palace

And speaking of architecture…

Just because you’ve seen one cathedral, doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all.

Every European city has at least one famous cathedral, and after visiting three or four (or five or six), you might be tempted to say enough is enough. However, going to cathedrals can be one of the best ways to learn about a country’s history, culture, and artwork.

Unique angle of Florence's Duomo image

The Duomo’s impressive from every angle.

Besides, each city’s cathedrals are different from the next. The Duomo’s pink and green marbled exterior is nothing like Notre Dame’s French Gothic design, and there’s no comparing the English Baroque style of St Paul’s Cathedral with La Sagrada Familia’s looming spirals and stunning stained-glass windows. (Although to be fair, you can’t compare La Sagrada Familia with any other building in the world. It’s just incredible.)

Columns in La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona image

Every detail of La Sagrada Familia is stunning. The columns here are designed to look like Barcelona’s palm trees.

When you travel, you’ll realize that there are so many more beautiful cathedrals, paintings, and sculptures than you have time to see. Instead of worrying about what you’re missing out on, focus on where you are in the present.

Accept that you won’t see everything.

Some museums are big; some are small. Either way, you won’t be able to see everything they have to offer. The Uffizi has entire rooms lined floor to ceiling with paintings. You could walk its every inch, and you still wouldn’t be able to absorb all of its artwork. Instead of trying to see everything, spend more time looking at a few pieces that really speak to you. Some will completely captivate you and you won’t know why. Stick with these. Mull them over. Don’t worry about wasting too much time in one place. Whatever your views are on art, know that it’s meant to be enjoyed. (I’m picturing a montage of my Philosophy of Art professor, Banksy, and my high school acting teacher asking, “What is art?”)

Whether you prefer Renaissance sculptures, impressionist paintings, brilliant cathedrals, or just the random, unidentified monuments lining European roads, take advantage of seeing art in its original form.

There’s nothing else like it.

Sarah Bennett

Muhlenberg College | 9 stories

Sarah Bennett graduated from Muhlenberg College in May with a double major in English and media and communications. She spent her fall semester studying abroad in London, making her inner English major and Shakespeare nerd pretty pleased - or as her British roommates said, chuffed to bits. She loves writing, good books, theater, and travel.

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