Travel Spotlight

Swooning Over Florence Art


, famously dubbed the “city of stone” by writer Mary McCarthy, has more art treasures per square foot than any other city in the world. The immense parade of cathedrals and palazzi, chapels and crypts, paintings, sculptures and frescoes casts such a powerful spell that Florence has a tendency to overwhelm even the most prepared art connoisseur.

The problem isn’t just that there are gems to behold at seemingly every turn. But everything is displayed in such a quotidian, nonchalant manner (molto Italiano) that the viewer has no cues to help prepare him or her for what is to come. If you are visiting the Louvre, for instance, the grand architecture of the courtyard, I.M. Pei’s pyramid and the dramatic staircases all set the stage for the brilliance of the collection to come. But to enter Florence’s Uffizi, which navigate a throng of unorganized lines, shuffle up an unadorned staircase with troves of other visitors and suddenly find yourself standing in dimly lit, ancient galleries that just happen to hold the most stunning Renaissance art you will ever behold (and that is but one museum; the rest of the day will likely include numerous more art venues).

If you have felt lightheaded at the end of a long day of art sight-seeing in Florence, you are not alone. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the Stendhal Syndrome. Named after the 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (better known under his nom de plume Stendhal), the syndrome is defined as a “psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art.”

Stendhal, who visited Italy in the early 19th century was so powerfully moved by the works of art he saw in Florence that he felt physically ill. He wrote: “On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall.”

For many, the heart palpitations start with trying to come up with a well-balanced cultural itinerary, as even the most art-hungry traveler will not be able to see and do everything in one trip. Having visited Florence three times now, I am a firm believer in “less is more” and in finding a balance between some big hits (because no matter how many times you visit Michelangelo’s David, you will always be surprisingly moved) and smaller, lesser-known gems. And of course, I schedule in ample time for snacks and macchiatto breaks, because who knows: maybe Stendhal had just skipped breakfast when he felt faint in Santa Croce.

Published onJune 10, 2010

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