Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Where else can you find an overwhelming concentration of historical sites combined with perfect weather, dazzling beaches, dramatic geography, and spectacular cuisine all set in a chic cosmopolitan culture? Yet for all of these advantages, Italy is endowed with something that sets the country apart from all others - the gift of renaissance art. It changed the world and it might change you as well. There is no better place on earth to experience this than in Florence.
Viewing art in Florence can be so impressive, the effects have actually made history. On a trip to Florence in 1817, a French author named Stendhal was seized with palpitations of the heart and dizziness while visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce. The alleged cause was attributed to being utterly overwhelmed by Renaissance art. This has been dubbed the Stendhal Syndrome, or ‘Tourist Disease’ and has reportedly afflicted hundreds of visitors to this magnificent city.
I can’t say that I have ever fainted or hallucinated in Florence but the city’s intensely rich legacy of art and history has at the very least sent shivers down my spine. When Florence was emerging as a 15th century commercial powerhouse, an upstart class of nouveau riche led by the House of Medici tried to outdo each other in decorating and glorifying the city with civic art. The results have been spectacular as artists, sculptors and architects have turned the Centro Storica, or Historic Center into what might be the greatest open air museum on earth.
The best way to introduce oneself to Florence is to visit Brunelleschi’s graceful Duomo which is the landmark architectural symbol of the city. Built with no scaffolding in the 1420s, I am never sure whether it is the beauty, balance and symmetry of the dome or the 358 winding steps to the top that takes my breath away, but suffice to say the experience never fails to stimulate all my senses. The panoramic view of the red-tiled roofs, the meandering Arno River and the Tuscan countryside is itself a work of art.
The thing that amazes me most about Florence is how the Western imagination has been ignited by the remarkable number of cultural pioneers who have lived here. The list is staggering, from Dante the poet to artists like Giotto and Botticelli. The cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who gave his name to America hailed from Florence along with the quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. If you are seeking the epicenter of the Florentine talent pool, look no further than the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Stendhal himself was afflicted with the ‘Tourist Disease’. The sixteen chapels festooned with glorious renaissance frescos might be enough to make you feel faint, but it is the pantheon of giants whose tombs are housed in the nave that make me weak at the knees. Niccolo Machiavelli, the dark knight of political thought who coined the phrase ‘the ends justifies the means’ is entombed here. You will find Galileo, one of the greatest scientists and astronomers in history resting at peace. However, it is the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarroti that inspires me like none other.
One cannot help but be awestruck by Michelangelo’s genius when gazing upon the David, the Sistine Chapel or the Pieta. Yet I found myself even more moved when standing in the shadow of his tomb attempting to absorb a small measure of his greatness. If I am ever to experience Stendhal Syndrome, it is here.
Italy is a country that should be seen. More than that, it should be felt. Just be careful when viewing the art.
Brian Unger is a historian and educator who shares his passion for art, culture and history as a guest lecturer on Oceania Cruises. Brian will be aboard Riviera’s Artistic Discoveries voyage this July for a spectacular Mediterranean journey that will include a visit to fabulous Florence. You should be able to find him at the Basilica of Santa Croce.