What could be more relaxing than a holiday in one of the world’s cultural capitals? According to this recent article, such cities may need ‘warning labels’, especially in the case of such historic centres as Jerusalem, Paris, and Florence (pictured above, in a 19th-century image). The article details psychotic states brought about by visiting religious and artistic sites, such as the American visitor to Jerusalem who thought he was Samson and tried to dislodge the stone blocks of the Wailing Wall (attracting no Wail-wishers in the process); the Japanese tourists who suffer psychosis from the disillusionment at encountering rude locals in the City of Light (and perhaps imagining that they have ‘France in their pants’); and the woman who was convinced that the frescoe figures in the Strozzi Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence were pointing at her (such that the frescoes were getting ‘fresh’ with her in the Florentine frescopticon).
This phenomenon is also known as the ‘Stendhal syndrome’, after the pen-name of the early 19th-century author known for such novels as Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. In 1817, he took a trip to Florence, and as he recounted in his travelogue Rome, Naples et Florence, underwent an intense emotional episode when visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce–one of the many sites visited by Dr. Jannette Vusich and her students in EMSP’s month-long study-abroad course in Florence.
Santa Croce contains the tombs of such Renaissance luminaries as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, as well as the tomb of the 19th-century opera-composer-turned-gourmand Gioachino Rossini (reputed author of a William Tell-all autobiography which gripes about grumpy haircuts from un-Seville Barbers). Indeed, if one were to gaze upon Michelangelo’s masterpieces and eat as richly as did Rossini–who is described as giving up opera for food, and who invented the dish Maccheroni siringati (piped macaroni), ‘which involves introducing a stuffing made of foie gras, creamed York ham, and truffles into cooked pasta tubes using a tiny silver syringe’–before visiting the final resting places of these hallowed figures, one would surely suffer a tomb-y ache from such an arty diet.
Stendhal describes how he fell into a sort of ecstasy at contemplating such sublime beauty, no doubt aided by the installation of underwater citrus fruits shaped like seagoing vessels for the refreshment of 19th-century visitors to Santa Croce: including ship-oranges, boat-lemons, and especially for Stendhal, sub-limes. Stendhal was moved by such fine arts and his own passionate sentiments (and perhaps strong ‘scenty mints’), which gave rise, as he puts it, to ‘sensations célestes‘.
Upon leaving Santa Croce, Stendhal writes, he suffered from ‘a palpitation of the heart, or what one calls nerves in Berlin; my life felt drained away, I staggered, afraid to fall.’ Thus, he could not Stand-all, or rather was Stand-ill, thus putting the ‘ill’ in the Santa Croce Bas-ill-ica. It is perhaps a consolation that visitors can still suffer from ‘Stendhal syndrome’, in contrast to the many crass and aesthetically insensitive tourists to Florence these days who just get Santa Croce-ty from all the tombs and artwork.
Early Modern Times will return in about a fortnight, as I’ll be speaking at the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Study Day next week.
Director, Early Modern Aesthetic-Emetic Studies Program