Europe's great art, on the run

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MONA WINKS: SELF-GUIDED TOURS OF EUROPE'S TOP MUSEUMS By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw John Muir Publications 410 pp., $19.95 (paper)

No trip to Europe is complete without sampling some of the Continent's artistic treasures. Generations of visitors have thrilled at the masterpieces in London's National Gallery, the Louvre, the Uffizi in Florence and the Prado in Spain. Ironically, most of the tourists who flock to these sites every year have little idea what they should see or how to interpret it.

To help the art-history challenged, Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw have written "Mona Winks," a book of self-guided tours to the major museums in seven European cities. The goal is to make visiting "Europe's 'required' museums ... meaningful, fun, fast and painless."

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The tours are organized around the most popular masterpieces in each museum. In the case of the National Gallery, for example, the authors choose 29 painting ranging from the 14th century "Wilton Diptych" to one of Monet's "Water Lilies." Pithy descriptions and small pictures accompany each entry.

A handy map is provided for each museum to help visitors find their way from one painting to another. (Visitor beware: No map ever works in the Louvre.)

The paintings selected are generally the best-known in each museum and it is hard to quarrel with the selections. But the time that they allot to see them is insufficient. It's hard to imagine a visitor finding and looking at the 36 items they select from the Muse D'Orsay in the two hours that they allow. The authors probably underestimate their audience in this regard: Anyone who buys a 400-page book and lugs it to Europe is probably willing to spend a reasonable amount of time to actually see the artwork.

The quality of the entries varies. In some cases, such as the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the summaries are quite good and address both the artist's technique and the subject. But in other places, such as the Muse D' Orsay, the descriptions are far less satisfactory.

Because many tourists know so little about art history, the book includes a very abbreviated summary that attempts to provide a quick outline. But the summary is too short to be worthwhile - "Five Millennia in Six Pages." The authors should either provide more information here or not bother.

The authors go to great lengths to make the tours "fun." Thus, the writing is conversational and descriptions and interpretations are witty and humorous. They make no apologies for this approach: "This book drives art snobs nuts. Its gross generalizations, sketchy dates, oversimplifications and shoot-from-the-hip opinions will likely tweeze art highbrows."

Unfortunately, the desire to be funny sometimes interferes with the descriptions. One wishes that they would go a little easier on the jokes.

Ultimately, the book delivers exactly what it promises: brief tours of Europe's most famous art museums presented in an engaging, humorous way. Those seeking a short tour that hits the highlights in a summary fashion will love this book. Those that want to look more deeply should instead purchase one of the companion guides that are readily available in the bookshop of any major museum.

*Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

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