I have a huge collection of Blue Guides. I use them for work - planning Podtours - and for planning my own travel. Some of them go back to the 1950s or even earlier, but in terms of art and architecture, they're pretty reliable. (For hotels, opening times, admission fees, and so on, I use the web.) And they're very comprehensive.
But they're also soul-destroying. You couldn't sit down and read a Blue Guide, it would be like reading a laundry list.
The Blue Guide is really reliable at telling you what is there. You won't miss anything. In a picture gallery, it will tell you about every darn picture. Yes, it puts, say, a good Caravaggio in bold type and a Michelangelo with a star, but it tells you pretty much everything that's there. And if, like me, you have some wayward enthusiasms for particular painters, that's very helpful.
But it has no sense of humour. It has no feeling for atmosphere. (The Blue Guide doesn't wander about to see what might be interesting, or hang out in a bar to get the vibes; it travels with a list of sights to see and it takes a rest when it's seen them all.)
What I really miss, though, is that granted the Blue Guide knows great art when it sees it, it doesn't tell me why it's great art. Why am I looking at this painting? What makes it worth my time?
Time for an anecdote.
I was in the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce when a schoolteacher started telling his charges about the paintings there. There are the Giotto frescoes of course but there's also
an altarpiece by 'the Master of the San Francesco Bardi" in a quite different, Byzantine style.
"Well," says the teacher, "you have to appreciate that the different styles show different values. The Byzantine ideal is spiritual, ascetic - the flesh, passions, emotions, individuality, all get in the way. God is purely spiritual and the closer we get to God, the less individual, the less passionate, we become. And so here we see St Francis, without emotion, schematically drawn." I looked at the knife edge folds of the robe over his legs and thought, interesting.
"And then Giotto is basically a Renaissance man, a Florentine too, and for him, it's precisely the physicality of life, the emotions, the passions, which make us human. He looks for the spirituality within the physical world. So his figures are rounded, his faces expressive and individual."
That was interesting. I dare say some art historians and theologians might quibble but it made a lot of sense to me. And it's a markedly more sympathetic treatment than the 'Giotto seven out of ten, Master of San Francesco Bardi two out of ten" rating points given by the Blue Guide (Eurovision painting contest anyone?)
Eavesdropping provides many pleasures for the traveller - and an occasional education. But you wouldn't get that advice out of the Blue Guide either....