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The Virtues of a Tour Guide

An illustration of a tour in Rome.

Photo: Illustrated by Brett Affrunti

In the end it was the odd tangents and digressions that we remembered best. Dabell took as much delight in seeming asides as he drew from his primary subjects: seen through his eyes, a door hinge was as sublime as the Pantheon’s dome; a chipped tile remnant as compelling as any Caravaggio. Standing before Sansovino’s otherwise solemn sculpture of Mary, Jesus, and Saint Anne in the church of Sant’Agostino, Dabell directed our gaze to Anne’s fingers, which—now that he mentioned it—were subtly tickling the infant’s foot. “Such an intimate gesture, and so moving,” he murmured.

Who’d have thought we could spend 50 rapt minutes just circling Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi while Dabell pointed out hitherto unnoticed details? “Look at that palm tree, leaning in the breeze. Astonishing!” he swooned as we took in the fountain’s twisting, kinetic swells. “Water, light, sound, sculpture, architecture, theater—it’s the first complete artwork,” Dabell continued. “When this fountain was switched on in 1651, Bernini essentially invented the cinema.”

I figured I’d seen the best of Bernini over the years, but until Dabell brought me to it, I’d never encountered what is now among my favorite of his works: a haunting memorial bust of Giovanni Vigevano, a 17th-century gentleman, inside the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. There’s nothing monumental about the likeness—rather an uncanny softness and vulnerability that belies the stone. “Bernini believed the best time to sculpt is just before the subject speaks or just after,” Dabell told us, and this was clearly the case with Vigevano. Bearded and frail with old age, he seems poised to utter a parting word; his head tilts almost imperceptibly forward, as if nodding in welcome to his own mourners. The bluish tint of the marble eerily suggests blood beneath skin, making the stone appear translucent. It is the most lifelike depiction of near-death I have ever seen. Yet there it was, virtually unnoticed by the throngs of passersby.

“Scholars know the Vigevano bust, but it’s not celebrated,” Dabell explained. “Encountering these busts of seventeenth-century characters no one’s ever heard of—it’s like meeting the people themselves.”

Seeing Rome on my own and then with Dabell was like the difference between scanning a piece of sheet music and hearing a choir sing it aloud. Suddenly the arc of the melody, the grace of the counterpoint, the thrust of the lyric all become clear. When I told Dabell this, he humbly demurred. “Sometimes you just have to step out of the way and let the art sing for itself,” he said as we gazed into Vigevano’s mournful eyes. “This is something we never make the time to do—just to stop, and look, without speaking.”

And so we did.

Casa Manni, 70 Via di Pietra, Rome; 39-06/9727-4787; casamanni.com; suite from $1,155. Frank Dabell is available through Casa Manni or Context Travel (215/240-4347; contexttravel.com; three-hour group tours from $90 per person).

For a list of our favorites, check out World’s Greatest Tour Guides.

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