Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The 19th century French writer Stendhal was utterly overwhelmed by the art of Florence to the point of dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations. His experience was not unique.: psychiatrists coined a term for the hundreds of people who have come to Florence and been overwhelmed by large quantities of beautiful art: Stendhal syndrome.

We read about this syndrome in our helpful guidebook and, just as nausea follows someone else being sick or itchiness proceeds from talk of head lice, we instantly begin to imagine ourselves dizzy from art.

But, Stendhal syndrome or no Stendhal syndrome, we will be going to one of the premier art museums in the world, the Uffizi, although perhaps not until after the jetlag subsides.

Many of my most favourite paintings and sculptures in the world hang in the Uffizi. What I am not prepared for is how visually intense the museum is. Even if it were stripped of every painting and statue, it would take weeks to see it properly.

The floor is a marvellous inlaid mosaic, showing off all the shades and colours of marble Italy has to offer. The ceilings are large frescoes, each perhaps twelve feet square, each uniquely painted. The hallways are lined with thousands of portraits of Florence’s leading citizens for the last five hundred years, and dotted with busts of unknown figures and artists. Fortunately there are benches.

There are more than forty rooms of art in the Uffizi, ranging in size from an intimate salon to an enormous triple ballroom. One room is circular, with brilliant red walls and a cupola for a ceiling, covered in mother-of-pearl shells from top to bottom. Another room has world maps frescoed on the walls. Still another appears to have family trees arranged among the tiny portraits that dot its walls.

It is the Botticelli painting of The Rites of Spring that stops me. Here you are, I say. The painting I first knew as a child, the one I studied as a teenager and here it is. How you respond to the Real Thing in art is tricky. It reminds me of the first time I saw mountains and thought they looked almost fake. Because these paintings are so very well known. And what is the difference between seeing a good coloured print and the real thing? The guilty watcher wonders this. The brush strokes are hard to see because many of the paintings have been varnished. And what I like about Renaissance painting is its verisimilitude: they look like real life. It is easy to be seduced into believing they are nearly photographic. I wonder whether photography has deadened our collective appreciation for art. Or whether it’s simply Stendhal syndrome setting in.

I’m intrigued that paintings I don’t like from a distance are very appealing close up, and vice versa. I like being able to sit and look. We are astounded by the size of some of the canvasses. We assume scaffolding was needed to paint many of them. We wonder whether they were commissioned by size to fit a wall somewhere or how the artist decided how big to paint it. We are honestly surprised there is only one Michelangelo painting in the Uffizi and we have to jostle for space with the tour group following the woman carrying a feather on a stick who leads only to the Good Art. But we have to make choices ourselves: we can’t see everything in a day or madness would surely set in. There is an oily smell, something petroleum-like in the room with the Michelangelo, and it begins to give me a headache. But fortunately not dizziness.

There is a sculpture of Venus that is just lovely, and as usual I am afflicted with my own syndrome: Touch the Statue Syndrome. I adore sculpture. I also realize on this visit that I love portraits. The portraits that strike me most are one of a reclusive monk, depicted in deep shadows, and one of Mary and Jesus locked in an embrace that reminds me of my own babies. Neither of them is painted by a painter the Feather Woman will likely stop in front of.

By the time we round the corner into the second wing, we are already flagging, both our feet and our eyes. I am reminded of the Far Side cartoon where the student asks to be excused because his brain is full; in my case, it is my eyes.

The other art galleries we visit in Florence set their works into space – the David stands tall in a space created just for him, where we can circle him, see the veins of marble chasing down his powerful legs, the curve of his hand, testing the heft of stone, the determination in his eyes. These museums allow the visitor to ruminate and ponder. The Uffizi is the Tokyo of the art world. We do not succumb to Stendhal syndrome but it takes a steely determination to see it all and to continue to have eyes to do so. I take my hat off to the older people in the crowd who keep walking and looking. It is the one place that makes me want to move to Florence – simply so I could slow down and drink it in over a year of Saturday afternoon visits.

Our guidebook tells us to stop on the terrace bar for a cup of cappuccino, that it is one of Europe’s great treats. It is a great treat to sit outdoors on a fresh spring day, to glance at the sky which seems peaceful after the embarrassment of riches indoors, but the coffee is lukewarm.

Refreshed, we head back inside and find what is, perhaps, the most beautiful room of all – a glittering sunlit gold and blue ballroom filled with enormous, poignant statues of Niobe and her children, found in a garden. Later we will read that some of these sculptures were damaged in a Mafia car bomb attack nearly twenty years ago, but for now we are enchanted, our eyes refreshed even as they are filled.

Really, cold coffee aside, the only downside to the Uffizi comes on the way out when we are led through a maze of no less than six gift shops. Both Dave and I separately feel the clash between the contemplation of art and the compulsion to spend. And yet, we too part with some cash to buy a guidebook we will look through at our leisure, seeing everything our eyes could not take in at once.

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