Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Uninvited

The Vatican Observatory via

“The Uninvited” is the title of the on-going exhibition at Gallery Gitanjali in Panjim of the work of the cartoonist Angela Ferrão. While personally unable to attend the exhibition, I have long followed, and appreciated, the work of Ferrão, who has the wonderful ability to piercingly penetrate an issue and render it visually. One way to look at her work, currently in exhibition (one I urge you to attend) is to see it as a critique of the way Goa has been developed as a tourist destination, whether for foreign nationals, or now, even more problematically, for the more demanding citizens of our country.

To be fair, however, the problem may not be Indians in Goa, given that contemporary tourism is about uninviting the local populations from their own homes – a fact that Ferrão highlights in her exhibition. Tourist destinations across the world, and in Europe – a space I have been able to view in close proximity for the past decade – have begun waking up to the problems of mass tourism. The residents of these destinations have also started protesting the manner in which their hometowns and regions are destroyed by the desire of global elites who seek to plant their second, third, or fourth homes, in these hitherto charming locations. Goans, then, are not alone.

If we look historically, tourism did not begin this way. One point of origin of contemporary tourism was “The Grand Tour” that the upper-classes of England, and other Northern European countries, undertook between the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The final destination of the Grand Tour were the various cities of Italy associated with the Renaissance and classical antiquity (i.e. ancient Rome and Greece). What started out as a trickle of rich and privileged young men – whose visits were not without problems, but given the low volume were perhaps manageable – has now grown into a flood. The deluge that is contemporary mass tourism is washing away the very locations that are the objects of touristic desire. What is worse, given that so many of these tourists have no real engagement with the places that they will visit, they do not realise that they are not seeing the real thing. These mass tourists arrive in droves, assisted by guidebooks and social media recommendations, and merely tick the boxes that they have been given. Having done so, and taken tons of images (which they will probably never see again, and are of dubious aesthetic and personal value in any case) they go back satisfied with the garbage that they have been fed.

Tourism is recommended because of the belief – drawn from the time of The Grand Tour – that travel expands your soul and sensibilities, you come back a richer person. This is not the case anymore; travel has now become a way to get away from the humdrum existence that is the lives of most people in the large metropolises of the world. That they destroy the locations they visit is not necessarily something they care about, since the point of travel has now become about consumption – the more the better.

I was recently offered an experience comparable with that of the young milords of The Grand Tour: an opportunity to visit the Vatican Observatory. While the visit to the installations, set within the fabled gardens of the Castelo Gandolfo – the summer residence of the Popes – was in itself a treat, those of us on the trip were offered something that made the trip even more worthwhile, the presence of a knowledgeable and captivating Cicerone, the wise and eloquent guide.

The man who guided us around the Observatory was the renowned astronomer and physicist Guy Consolmagno SJ. But you would never know that if you saw the man – who with his wild hair, long beard, bushy eyebrows, wilder eyes and animated speech, could well be your favourite uncle. A companion on the tour, also a seminarian where I study, was at pains, however, to inform us that Consolmagno was no regular tour guide, he was a bona fide scholar whose research has been published in the finest international research journals. Consolmagno was also Director of the Observatory and clearly loved showing us around.

Perhaps the key to understanding Consolmagno’s tour of the Vatican Observatory was to emphasize the dialogue between science and faith that has always been a part of the Catholic Church’s tradition. He pointed out that the entire discourse of the clash between science and faith was invented in the 19th century. This should come as no surprise to any student of modern history. The partisans of the modern republics were extremely hostile to the Catholic Church which they saw as a roadblock in their road to gaining complete power. It made sense that they would present the church as an institution of science-hating (Mad) hatters.

Galileo, he pointed out, was – despite the challenges posed to his research – a faithful Catholic, who had two daughters who were nuns. The astronomical knowledge of priests of the Catholic Church were critical to the Gregorian calendar we use and take for granted. Had it not been for this reform from the late 1800s, which introduced the leap year, our calendar would have been completely out of sync with the seasons we lived in. Consolmagno also introduced us to the figure of Father Angelo Secchi SJ, another Jesuit, whose astronomical and other expertise was regarded internationally, and directed the Observatory of the Roman College – one of the institutions that eventually led to the establishment of the Vatican Observatory.

What was fascinating about this tour was the realisation that the Jesuits who man the Observatory – one of them being the Goan Fr. Richard de Souza SJ – are all well-regarded members of the international scientific establishment. More interestingly was the realisation that because these men are religious (Consolmagno is not a priest but a brother) and do not have to operate within the same kind of funding cycles that govern the lives of professional academics, they are able to do long durée research that can then support the work of professional academics.

The tour took us about an hour and a half, perhaps it was two hours, but we came away from that tour with a deeper understanding of the world around us, and it seemed to me that this is what tourism ought to be. Not a rush from place A to place B, accompanied by a wild shopping spree, but a reflective engagement with a space, a history, and people. Angela Ferrão, offers a similar opportunity to be your Cicerone as she walks you through the injustices tourism has wreaked in Goa. Take it!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 13 Dec 2023)