Believe it or not, Stendhal syndrome, also known as Florence syndrome, is an affliction that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when a person is exposed to extraordinary works of art. The beauty is so overwhelming that people literally start to feel faint from the onslaught. This term was coined by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini after having treated hundreds of patients who suffered from these symptoms while in Florence. Margherini named the syndrome after the French author Stendhal, who wrote about having such an experience inside the Basilica of Santa Croce. Though I have been deeply impressed, I myself have not experienced the full extent of Stendhal’s syndrome while in Santa Croce (or any other part of Florence). However, it is easy to see how many others could be afflicted while within the walls of this Basilica. This place is a treasure trove of exquisite artwork and unbelievable history, and has been referred to as such by many people over the ages.
In his book The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, Mark Twain writes about his travels around Europe, and specifically mentions Santa Croce. Unfortunately, his overall time in Florence does not seem to have been particularly pleasant—this may be attributed to his getting lost in the middle of the night, and wandering until the early hours of the morning to find his hotel. However, he did enjoy his time in the Basilica, where he would “weep over the tombs of Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Machiavelli.” Almost one hundred and fifty years later, visitors can do exactly the same thing as Mark Twain and feel humbled by the resting places of some of the most influential people to come out of Italy. Author Paige Parrish agrees with Twain, stating “The church of Santa Croce was amazing. The tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo are there.”
There is also a strong possibility that Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous epic poem, House of Fame, was inspired by Giotto’s frescoes inside the Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce. In the early 1370s, Chaucer was an esquire to King Edward III. During this time, he was sent to Florence to discuss financial relations between Edward III and the Bardi and other Florentine Houses. As a guest of the Bardi family, it is extremely likely that Chaucer would have gone to mass in their family chapel (really chapels, since they had amassed four) in Santa Croce. Giotto’s use of perspective to bring focus to certain subjects within his art may have inspired one of the main themes in Chaucer’s poem, which is the validation of experience through reference to sight. For those unfamiliar with the poem, it is an extremely dreamlike encounter of a glass palace filled with relics of famous figured—aside from the building material, this palace does not sound too different from a Basilica, especially one with as many relics as Santa Croce. As Chaucer writes,
“But as I slepte, me mette I was
Withyn a temple ymad of glas,
In which ther were moo ymages
Of gold, stondynge in sondry stages,
And moo ryche tabernacles,
And with perre moo pynacles,
And moo curiouse portreytures,
And queynte maner of figures
Of olde werk, then I saugh ever.”
For anyone who is not able to understand Middle English, Chaucer is saying, “But as I slept, I was met within a temple made of glass, In which there were more images of gold, standing in sunny stages, and more rich tabernacles, more stone pinnacles and more curious portraits and quaint manner of figures of old work, than I ever saw.” This experience sounds incredibly familiar to one’s first visit to Santa Croce. Perhaps House of Fame is actually an homage to the Basilica of Santa Croce. It is also a well known fact that Chaucer was strongly influenced by Dante, Boccaccio and Petrach—he had a clear affinity for Italian culture.
Florence in particular is an exquisite city, likely culpable for many more pieces of art, literature and music than we will ever realize. As Henry James wrote, “Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.” This is a beautiful description for such an enchanting city. Visiting this place will be one of the most rewarding experiences of one’s life. I truly encourage all people to visit the Basilica of Santa Croce if afforded the opportunity. Whether or not you are an artist, there is inspiration and awe to be found for all visitors who come to this place. There is much more to be seen and reveled in than any person’s words can express, and nothing will satisfy your curiosity except for your own experiences. As Giuseppe Verdi once said, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” Truly, this seems like a pretty fair trade.
Blogger Kaytie Norman is a soon to be graduate student of Syracuse University currently studying in Florence. She is an English major and Italian minor with a deep admiration for the arts.