Each year, the main hospital in Florence, Italy treats tourists suffering a strange psychological condition. It happens after they try to take in the Renaissance city’s innumerable masterpieces and artistic wonders too quickly.
It has a name: Stendhal’s syndrome, after Stendhal (1783-1842), a French writer who described experiencing strange symptoms while visiting Florence in 1817:
Sometimes known as Florence syndrome, the disorder is characterized by difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, racing thoughts, and even hallucinations. It can be experienced when exposed to works of art of extraordinary beauty, especially if in limited spaces.
While on Grand Tour of Italy, Stendhal was visiting the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce in Florence when he experienced the phenomenon. The church is known for famous frescoes by Giotto and other masters.
Stendhal described the experience in his diary:
“I was in Florence, and as usual I couldn’t stop myself from wandering around the center to admire its infinite beauty. I entered the church of Santa Croce, and after a while I began to feel ill. My heart was pounding, and I felt dizzy. All those works of extraordinary workmanship, so compressed into a limited space, were really too much for an aesthetic lover like me.
I had reached that level of emotion where the celestial sensations given by the arts and passionate feelings come together. Coming out of Santa Croce, I had a [strong] heartbeat; it was as if my life had dried up, I walked fearing I would fall.”
He did not state which artistic masterpiece triggered the reaction, just that he was in the Church of Santa Croce. The chapel where it took place was midway down the nave to the left.
Photo courtesy of Bret Thoman.
The city of Florence has an unparalleled art tradition. During the high Middle Ages, the districts of Florence were centered around prominent churches headed by the religious orders. As the city rose to economic prominence first in the wool trade, later in banking, important families became benefactors of the churches and patronized the arts, particularly for their family tombs.
In 1295, construction on the city’s principal Franciscan church began with a gift of a relic of the True Cross, which gave the church its name, Santa Croce (Holy Cross). By 1310, work was completed, and the Franciscan Order established itself within.
Santa Croce is known for its decorated chapels and funerary tombs of Florence’s most illustrious personages, including Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli.
The apse and side chapels are truly dazzling. The 16 chapels alongside the left and right transept were commissioned by the city’s wealthiest families and decorated by the greatest artists. Giotto, a native of Florence, was the first artist to achieve celebrity status in his lifetime. He decorated the two chapels to the right of the apse, commissioned by the wealthy Bardi and Peruzzi banker families.
Photo courtesy of Bret Thoman.
The first chapel detailed scenes from the life of St. Francis, while the second detailed scenes from the lives of Sts. John the Baptist and Evangelist. These chapels were a break from previous Byzantine iconography in their utilization of perspective and realism.
While Byzantine art sought to depict heavenly saints and visions of the afterlife – depicted in a flat, emotionless style, with golden backgrounds to represent heaven – Giotto focused on the spirituality of the here and now. He portrayed saints as having emotion and depicted the sky in a realistic blue. His message was that the Gospel was to be lived in the present.
Whether Stendhal’s psychological reaction was due solely to the beauty of the art or the power of the Gospel will be forever a mystery.