“Travelling is really useful, it makes your imagination work. Everything else is disappointment, effort. The journey we are given is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.
Louis Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of Night, 1932.
(opening quotation of La Grande Bellezza)
Until I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s film, La Grande Bellezza, I had never heard of the Paris Syndrome, the Florentine Syndrome or Stendhal Syndrome as it is known in some psychological studies. In the first scene of the 2013 film, a Japanese tourist, taking pictures of a choir singing hauntingly on a balcony on the Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill) in Rome, collapses and dies. My movie companion sighed, her hand on her throat.
At the obligatory debriefing over red wine at “Mother Vine”, my friend explained the psychosomatic illness first identified by Stendhal in 1817. In his travel account, ‘Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio’,Stendhal recalls his emotional response to Giotto’s famous ceiling frescoes in Santa Croce Cathedral.
‘I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty.....Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart...Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’
I had all but forgotten the film and this discussion until I found myself in Italy just a week ago. Confused by my anxiety and my heart’s wild beating on a number of occasions on this trip, I confided in my fellow travellers. They, too, had succumbed to inexplicable tears, to disorientation, to a feeling that time had stopped. For one, it was the opera at La Fenice, for another it was Michelangelo’s tomb in Santa Croce Cathedral where Giotto’s ceiling had so affected Stendhal, yet another was moved at Bramante's Tempietto in Montorio, high above our hotel in Trastevere.
Photo credit: Bramante's Tempietto, Montorio. (October, 2018)
One experienced traveller found her knees were so weak when she saw Botticelli in situ at the Uffizi that she had to sit on a window ledge to recover. For me, it was escaping the crush of history at the Colosseum for the peace of Palatine Hill to catch my breath.
Photo credit: My view of the Colosseum from Palatine Hill. (October, 2018)
Then, in the eerie silence that befalls a sacred place even when there are people around, I walked through the Forum, touched the marble figures in the House of the Vestals in the sure knowledge that time and gender linked us through the ages. I stood in the arena below the three remaining columns from the Temple of Castor and Pollux rebuilt in the reign of Tiberius in the first century AD, a testament to a country where culture, politics and aesthetics have always been deeply interwoven. My heart pounded in my throat, my breath came in short bursts. It was the Roman heat, I assured myself. But early the next morning, I returned alone. In the hazy morning light, a cool nip on the air, I knew that I had been moved by something unfathomable.
Photo credit: Morning light on the Forum.
My travelling cohort were all strong, mature women, bemused by our individual reactions, yet we sensed that something bigger than all of us was at play in our range of symptoms and responses to various triggers. Were we over tired? Had we waited too long to see art works that had played a part in our emotional upbringing? Why had we surrendered to the power of art?
I have since read that it is indeed in the Uffizi Gallery that most documented cases of Stendhal Syndrome occur. In 1979, the then chief of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, Dr Graziella Magherini, recognised that many tourists in Florence presented to the hospital with maladies ranging from panic attacks to psychoses after visiting the Uffizi. If we had been made mad by immeasurable beauty then at least there was a name for it and we were in good company.
Italy, being a place of extraordinary ironies, conjured up an enchanting one as I read that Dr Magherini’s research was conducted in a hospital itself capable of rendering a cultural swoon.
Santa Maria Nuova Hospital has been caring for people over the last 700 years, never missing a single day, not even during the plagues. It has its own rich art collection consisting of 730 paintings, frescoes, sculptures and furnishings by artists including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea del Castagno, Andrea della Robbia, Giambologna and Leonardo da Vinci, who is also known to have performed at least two autopsies there for his anatomical studies.
Photo credit: Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in the piazza of the same name, Florence. (October, 2018)
The hospital has a unique history: Folco di Ricovero dei Portinari, more renowned as the father of Dante’s beloved Beatrice, founded Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in 1288. The family’s nurse established the Oblates, initially a group of wealthy, pious Florentine women who, inspired by St Francis of Assisi, dedicated their services to God.
Over the centuries, the hospital's complex of buildings expanded and its interior was adorned with opulent art . In 1688 a pioneering “madhouse”, or psychiatric ward for poor, demented men thought to be possessed by Satan, was added to the hospital.
Religious services in the beautiful chapel are offered daily for staff, patients, visitors and for the few remaining Oblate nuns. A tour of the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital Museum can be prebooked for certain times of the week.
At least you know that any panic attack brought on by “sublime beauty” will be taken seriously.
Photo Credit: a detail from The Altare della Patria. Piazza Venezia, Rome. (October, 2018)