Treasures of Sacred Art: Tuscan
Journeys takes viewers on an extensive tour through the Christian
art and architecture of Tuscany, from Florence to Siena to Pisa and
more. It's quite an extensive set, with 30 half-hour episodes over
six DVDs; the question is, is it worth spending the time on this
Tuscan journey? The answer depends on what you're looking for.
Tuscan Journeys is
essentially a set of filmed museum visits, loosely tied together by
tourist wanderings from one town to the next. In many of the
locations visited in the program, the episode does in fact literally
take the viewer on a tour through a museum: many of the churches in
Tuscany have small art collections or associated mini-museums for the
public. Even in the locations that aren't literally museums, the
programs take a museum-tour-like approach, wandering through the area
and stopping to admire the works of art as they're come upon.
The result is that Tuscan
Journeys is both very rich and very shallow, at the same time.
The richness comes from the sheer quantity of amazing art that we get
to see: in churches, cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, and so on, we
see sculpture, decoration, frescoes, and paintings from master after
master. Clearly, the patrimony of Christian art in Tuscany is
incredible, and in its 15 hours, Tuscan Journeys fits quite a lot of
The shallowness, though, comes from
the fact that the museum-visit approach gives us, the viewers, very
little information about the masterpieces of art that we're viewing.
Yes, the voiceover tells us who painted such-and-such a piece, and
offers some words of appreciation, but that's about it. We don't get
any information about the history behind the pieces, how the
different compositions relate to each other or how the artistic
traditions developed, or any real sense of how these pieces - so
important to the life of their day - fit into the culture. The
narrator will make comments such as remarking that such-and-such a
fresco is "very interesting"... and then leave it at that.
Interesting in what way? More interesting than the other pieces, for
what reason? We aren't told! It's a frustrating experience, because
it ends up reducing all these masterpieces to "pretty things to
look at"; these incredibly moving and powerful pieces of
religious art lose much of their power by being so thoroughly out of
context. (In general, the script is not a marvel of good writing. For
example, at one point, an impressive cathedral is referred to -
apparently in praise - as a "Gothic mastodon.")
That's not to say that we can't
develop a great aesthetic appreciation for a piece of art unless we
know how it fits into history; in fact, the beauty of many of the
pieces of art and architecture displayed in Tuscan Journeys is
precisely how they transcend history to touch us even in the modern
day and in a different culture. But to develop that kind of
appreciation, we'd need to spend sufficient time looking at a
particular piece: observing it, responding to it, absorbing its
details and developing an overall emotional and intellectual reaction
to it. That, in fact, is what a person can do on his or her own in a
museum: sit down on one of those benches and look at a particular
piece for a sustained period of time. However, Tuscan Journeys
puts viewers in the position of being guests on a guided tour,
pausing before each piece briefly and then shuttling the group to the
next one. In that sense, if the program wasn't going to provide much
information about the pieces, at least it should have presented fewer
pieces - something that's counter-intuitive, perhaps.
I suspect that another issue with
Tuscan Journeys is that it was created originally with an
Italian audience in mind, certainly not an American one. The
voiceover narration is peppered with "everyone knows..."
comments that clearly refer to information that this well-educated
American reviewer certainly did not know. There's an implied
assumption that viewers are already familiar with the artists
displayed here, their importance, and their cultural background. If I
had that background, I'm sure that I'd have enjoyed Tuscan
Journeys a lot more. Unfortunately, I was interested in the
program precisely because I don't know a lot about Christian art and
architecture in Tuscany, and I wanted to know about it. Tuscan
Journeys let me see a lot of it, but I can't say as I know a whole
lot more about it than when I started. That's a shame, since the art
truly is magnificent.
Treasures of Sacred Art: Tuscan
Journeys is a six-DVD set, with the discs packaged in an awkward
gatefold format that has the discs overlapping each other in three
pairs. The packaging is lovely to the eye, with details of various
artworks used to decorate the gatefold pages as well as the
The episodes appear in their
original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Colors are bold and bright, with a
clean appearance, well suited for the presentation of the various
works of art. There's some pixellation apparent, especially in
outdoor shots, but it's not too bad. Contrast is too heavy on the
outdoor footage, but indoors it looks good.
The stereo soundtrack is crisp and
clean, letting us hear the breathless-sounding narrator with clarity.
The background music is clear and balances well with the voiceover.
There are no special features on
I didn't dislike this set, exactly,
but I certainly didn't like it nearly as much as I'd hoped to.
Watching Treasures of Sacred Art: Tuscan Journeys is like
wandering through a museum without a handbook, looking at the
pictures and thinking "that looks pretty" but not much
else... and with the pressure of a tour guide always ready to hustle
you off to look at the next masterpiece. If you're already
well-versed in the art history of Tuscany, and you just want to see
a lot of it, then this DVD set will be a treat; if you're looking for
information and insight into that artistic tradition, this set will
be a major disappointment. I'll split the difference and give this a
"rent it" and point out that it's likely to be particularly
of interest to those who teach art or art history.