In 1811 a young French writer named Henri Beyle traveled to Florence for the first time. Coming from Bologna, his coach crossed the Apennines and descended to the city. He recalls: ‘My heart was leaping wildly within me: what utterly childlike excitement!’ Suddenly Brunelleschi’s dome surges into sight and Beyle bounds from his coach, leaving his luggage and lurching into the first great church he finds: Santa Croce. Here he tumbles across tombs, Michelangelo’s, Galileo’s, and turns his thoughts to other great Tuscans: Dante! Boccaccio! Petrarch! As he describes it: ‘The tide of emotion that overwhelmed me flowed so deep that it was scarce to be distinguished from religious awe.’
Now. We all at times see something so beautiful it takes our breath away. Or hear a thing so moving it makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up. But what befell Beyle was of another order entirely, tending to the trance-like, from what he tells us: ‘A supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.’ And that’s not all. When he finally set foot outside Santa Croce, he suffered a flat-out fainting fit and fell flush to the floor.
Beyle (who assumed his nom the plume Stendhal as he wrote up his chronicles of travels in Rome, Naples and Florence) had spotted his symptoms but not his condition. What he felt was finally formalized in 1979 by a Florentine psychiatrist who labeled the fuzzy faint felt by some art-seeing people Stendhal’s Syndrome. Skeptics will scoff that it’s just the rough and tumble of the tourist trawl that brings on a case of the jelly legs: Lord knows it’s a lot to handle, with sunscreen leaking into eyes, the juggle of timetables, guide books, that sore from your sandals and odd-food indigestion. And a medical man might cite a common head-rush as the more likely cause of the symptoms.
Let’s take a breather to look at The Faint (c. 1744) by Pietro Longhi (1702 – 1785). Shock! there’s a damsel in domestic demise: she’s deathly pale as others crowd her crumble. But, take in the tipped table, fallen cards and coins clattered to the floor, and the cause of her collapse computes easily. Our girl is a gambler and she’d been dealt a dumb hand: she simulated her swoon to grind the game to a halt! Smart. As servants swill to help her, all the bets are off.
Longhi did a great line in insider-takes of the Venetian highlife: his subjects were upperclass ladies and gents then living a period of pleasure and decadence. These people were his patrons and would have been delighted with the painted detail of their décor: chinoiserie card table and moss-green damask on the walls.
The one thing I look for in Longhi is more sharp satire: there’s none. Aside from that, I find his brush a dab bland, his colors a dab dull and his characters too diminutive and doll-like by far. Still, how else would be learn about the capers of the Venetian upper crust? A clue to his contemporary reception come from one Venetian journalist: “he portrays in his canvases what he sees with his own eyes.” And that’s the case with the farcical faint.
I like to believe in Stendhal’s Syndrome, since it stands as an art-lover’s beacon of belief: Florence made him faint, in an unreligious, all-aesthetic rapture. And, having seen some of Sicily’s staggering sights this week, I’ve also felt a tad woozy at times. And that was only partly down to the sunshine/ wine.