Recently I booked the Secret Itinerary in English at the Doge’s Palace for my sister and nephew. The tour takes in the archives, the torture chamber, the Inquisitors’ room and the attic prisons known as the Leads, where Casanova was confined and from which he craftily escaped. I’d also heard about a really good young guide who recently gave this tour to some friends; they came back enthusiastic and wanting to know more. She’d been lively, friendly and brought the dark passageways and mysterious rooms to life.
It sounded like excellent displacement activity for someone with deadlines on two novels. It had been at least fifteen years since I’d done the Secret Itinerary myself, so I decided to go along myself, with the excuse that I wanted to make sure I could still personally recommend this tour to friends who come to
But sadly, this time I involuntarily inflicted on my family the worst specimen I have ever encountered in a long career of guided tours that takes in an excruciating camel journey through the desert by the pyramids with a compulsive bottom-pincher leering from the beast roped up to mine, a driving tour around Athens with a terrifying sociopath and, in New Zealand, four life-sapping hours with an unreconstructed racist who absolutely insisted on teaching us the life cycle of the kiwi fruit when we’d booked to hear about colonial architecture.
I knew that things were not going well the moment our Doge’s Palace guide arrived: an older woman with magenta hair and a toad-swallowing expression. Where was lively young girl my friends had enjoyed? I began to worry. Then the toad-swallower opened her mouth … and it all turned out worse than I could ever have imagined.
The beautiful, fascinating Doge’s Palace was described by Ruskin as 'the central building of the world'. This guide single-handedly turned it into an uncomfortable, irrelevant, hateful place for twenty-four people who were bright enough to find out about the special tour in the first place and get past the arcane booking system – and who were on those counts alone deserving of being treated as intelligent beings.
After our guide had finished with us, we were running for the exit, not wanting to see the Doge’s Palace ever again. She was rude, boring, bullying, patronizing, officious and just plain nasty. Even her body language was more Prison Guard than Person Working in the Hospitality Industry. One female visitor became not unnaturally claustrophobic in Casanova’s cell and asked to stand near the door. Visibly trembling and pale, she was yelled at and harried until my sister and I intervened. Like all bullies, when confronted by opposition, the appalling guide slunk off to bully someone else.
The guide spent far more time warning us what we were not allowed to – petty and stupid things, endlessly repeated in an insulting, droning tone – than in delivering information. The only eye contact she made was in fierce glares, accompanied by the irritable clapping of her hands at anyone who was standing where, in her opinion, they should not be.
She made the classic writer’s mistake of telling us what she was going to tell us, before doing it. This was so pronounced that it began to seem that she was deliberately doing it in order to spoil the next stage of the tour.
Worst of all she made no effort to entertain or engage the interest of the group, aged ten to sixty, I’d say. She turned the whole experience into a punitive one for everyone, patronizing the adults as much as the children. Someone tried to ask a question in the archive room. It was a good question, but the response was so unpleasant that no one dared ask another. Questions were not welcome. Our job was to shuffle obediently in and out of rooms as fast as possible so she could discharge her superficial pellets of information as quickly she could and be free of our undesirable company.
At one point, I lifted a notebook from my bag to write a domestic reminder to myself (being so intensely bored with what she was saying that I’d stopped listening). She shrieked ‘No notes!’ so loudly that I dropped my pencil. I thought of telling her ‘Non c'e' nulla di cio' che oggi ci ha detto che valga la pena di essere scritto.’ (You haven’t told us anything today that was worth writing down.) But it would have been lost on her.
The moral for historical fiction writers is clear – if you are guiding someone into the past, you must do so with empathy. You mustn’t patronize and you must attempt to engage with your audience. You are the bridge between the past and the present. Make the transit smooth and enjoyable. Take into account the fact that you have the duty, and the honour, of representing the past to your readers. Do not subject them to an experience that will turn them off your patch of history for ever. Share your pleasure, not your misanthropy.
There must plenty of other jobs where a pleasure in bullying and a hatred of the world could be usefully deployed: but let us have the great monuments of the world reanimated for us by people who love people!
Now, just to show that the mean guide did not really destroy the Doge’s Palace, here is a video of Mike Oldfield’s eponymous song from his 1999 album, The Millennium
And you can also read about a wonderful guided tour enjoyed by Adèle Geras here
Has anyone else had any notable guiding experiences, good or bad? Do share.
Michelle Lovric’s website
Illustration: William Harding Smith: Palazzo Ducale (Porta della carta)