Losing my mind in Florence
In 1817, Stendhal went to Florence and freaked out. It was Giotto that did it.
Florence is the paragon of beauty. Nobody can dispute that. It’s a concept that's been firmly rooted in the collective consciousness for centuries. Finally coming face to face with it, the reality of it, there, within physical reach, short-circuited Stendhal's brain.
Now this is a recognised thing that happens to people: Stendhal syndrome.
“physical and emotional anxiety (rapid heart rate and intense dizziness, that often results in panic attacks and/or fainting), feelings of confusion and disorientation, nausea, dissociative episodes, temporary amnesia, paranoia, and – in extreme cases – hallucinations and temporary ‘madness’.”
This is what I wanted from Florence. I wanted to be driven ‘mad’ with beauty.
For four days I trundled around the city in search of madness. Madness in Florence, it turns out, has an entrance fee and a very long queue.
I marvelled at David's pose. Toes peeking over the rock as if he might step down any moment from his rugged pedestal. It is an effortless pose. A timeless pose of easy perfection. A useless pose.
I say this, because, at his feet, a new pose is born. One that properly captures the essence of our time, drawn, like some rough beast, out of Spiritus Mundi:
Bent knee, hand on hip, duck pout.
There was a long, quivering line of tourists waiting for their chance to strike that pose. So many that I had to walk behind David and stare up at his buttocks. The only part of his body with an unobstructed view.
It was a perfect butt.
I waited for two hours to get into the Uffizi. Next to me in the queue a man kept snorting, a rattling, inward snort, like he was trying to clear a wad of phlegm from his sinuses. For two hours it did not stop. I counted the seconds between each one to see if I could establish a pattern. Discover, perhaps, some link to the Fibonnaci sequence. But I could not. It undermined all notions of the golden ratio. I calculated a loose average, and in those two hours, he snorted over 700 times.
Beauty unto madness! I craved it. But I was frustrated at every turn. Whenever I stopped to contemplate a Giotto, or a Fra Angelico, a bored child would scream. Or someone would step in my line of sight to do the Spiritus Mundi pose. Or they would get too close to a painting and set off an alarm that sounded exactly like a reversing garbage truck.
I almost lost hope.
But then the crowds parted and there she was, beauty herself, Venus, emerged from the primordial sea. I hustled over and elbowed a little space for myself, determined not to leave before losing my mind.
At first, nothing happened. I was trying too hard to experience something. So I just looked.
And pretty soon I was utterly lost.
For a few moments I wasn't in Florence any more, wasn't in the Uffizi, wasn't surrounded by thousands of tourists.
Staring at that painting was a mysterious and intimate experience which I'm not able to describe without sounding trite or pretentious. So I'll just say this:
Something washed over me. Something tender and precious and sad. I didn't go crazy or have a panic attack, but I felt very emotional. In a good way.
Stendhal walked away from Giotto’s frescoes overcome by “a fear of falling”. I felt the opposite. I had the feeling of being lifted.
When I walked away, I did so on Botticelli’s gossamer clouds, while all around me rang out a hymn of reversing garbage trucks, phlegmatic snorts, and screaming children.