Posts in: PY178

A Mild Case of Stendhal Syndrome

As my adventure in Florence comes to an end, I circle back to the discussion around what makes art so impactful. Though most works, especially those from Renaissance, are static, flat, and unresponsive, I find them personally meaningful. In psychology, the inner stirring that art can inspire is called “aesthetic experience”: a feeling of sublime, and overpowering awe. At the extreme end of the aesthetics spectrum is Stendhal Syndrome (also known as “Florence Syndrome”), which describes the symptoms that sometimes emerge in travelers overcome by artwork.

Stendhal’s Syndrome seems to manifest differently across people, with some victims enduring bouts of severe dizziness, fainting, and heart palpitations, and others experiencing elaborate hallucinations. This year, upon seeing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, one man undressed completely, and struck a Venus-like pose, before he was dragged off by museum security. Though clinicians disagree about whether or not this slew of symptoms represents a discrete medical condition, the bizarre somatic reaction known as Stendhal Syndrome is not uncommon amongst travelers to Florence. 

What causes some people to be so completely overcome by artwork? Though the answer is still unknown, we discussed two possible explanations. The first is that people tend to to rush through art, especially in Florence, because there is so much to see and so little time. Many travelers, trying to “do Florence”  in a couple days, do not have the energy to process the art as completely as they need to. Rushing from the Uffizi to the Medici Palace to the Boboli Gardens, travelers are ultimately buried in unresolved feelings that the works of art evoke. Because these emotions remain unprocessed, people’s bodies shut down, so that they are forced to slow down and acknowledge what they are feeling.

The other explanation is that art evokes an outflow of emotions repressed in everyday life; and because people are not used to such intense feelings, they are overcome by them. We live in a world where the full expression of emotion is not socially accepted. If we saw someone throw down their plate when the restaurant service was slow, or weep deeply when they had a hard day at work, or skip through the halls when their daughter passed her test, we would think they were crazy. Because display rules don’t allow us to experience the full extent of our emotions, we learn to suppress much of what we are feeling.

Yet we have this visceral, often unacknowledged desire, to feel those feelings we have shoved down, causing us to seek out stimuli that will emotionally activate us, like art. Through art, we are allowed a brief outlet for our emotion, empathizing with the subjects in the pieces. In some cases, we actually see our own experiences in the work, inspiring a sort of meta-empathy with ourselves. In other words, our ability to connect with the subjects depicted in art, while retaining some distance from the work, allows us a novel perspective into our own lives. This perspective leads some people to have almost spiritual “aha!” moments of understanding and connectedness upon seeing art. It is possible that this sudden insight and intense emotion overpowers travelers, especially those without an outlet for expression and reflection in their everyday lives, causing Stendhal Syndrome.

Whatever the explanation, and whether we pass out, stay conscious, or get naked, art can be incredibly powerful. Though it is inert and inanimate, art has the capacity to move us. In fact, I think I might be coming down with a mild case of Stendhal Syndrome myself.

A Giant Leap for Womankind

We’re moving from two dimensions to three this week, from painting to sculpture! During the Renaissance, sculptures were a way to influence public perceptions and identity- a form of political propaganda. The sculpture that I fell most in love with is the Juno Fountain, by Bartolomeo Ammannati. The fountain was commissioned by Cosimo I of the Medici family in 1556. If you haven’t heard of the Medici, (or have heard of them a million times but don’t actually know what they were famous for), here’s a refresher. The Medici family basically invented money and banking. Before the Medici, bartering was the standard of trade, but the Medici realized that one way to make money really fast is to just make the money. The family’s riches gave them power and many Medici served in Florentine government.

Cosimo I was Duke of Florence at the time, and commissioned the fountain when he was able to connect Florence with a new water source. Though the fountain was intended to be the centerpiece of the Great Council Hall, it was never installed there; Cosimo I came into possession of a Michelangelo statue, and replaced the Juno Fountain with it. Newly homeless, the Juno Fountain was moved temporarily the royal gardens, before it’s component parts were (tragically) scattered around the park. It wasn’t until recently that the pieces of the fountain were reassembled at the Bargello Museum in Florence. To quote Peaches and Herb, “Reunited and it feels so good!”

I love this fountain because it so appropriately addresses the achievement it commemorates. The entire fountain is centered around the idea of the water cycle as it was understood by Aristotle. Aristotle believed that water was created from a combination of the elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Fittingly, the characters depicted in this fountain have allegorical significance, with each representing a natural element.

On top of the fountain, sits Juno, protector of the state, with a tambourine in her hand. The clap of her tambourine signifies thunder and lighting, indicating that the gods could strike down any misbehaving mortals. Juno sits atop a stone rainbow, the path of connection between heaven and earth. Beneath the rainbow, lie two bodies of water, personified as a man and a woman. On the left, is Arno, the river that still provides water to the city of Florence. On the right, is Parnassus, the spring that famously arose from  Mt. Helicon, providing poetic inspiration to all who drank from her waters.

Though each of these characters have their charm, the woman in the center of the fountain, Ceres (Roman goddess of Earth and agriculture), is the clear star of the show. Ceres stands with her hands on her breasts, squeezing the fountain water from them. Ironically, fountains that depict a urinating man are very common, yet fountains where women produce water from their breasts are rare. Ceres’ body shape is concave, with her shoulders rounded forward, as she seems to push the water out from within her. Her right cheek is turned to the viewer, an indication of authority and power. With her ocularis and zygomaticus muscles slightly contracted, she appears to be smiling softly, yet knowingly down at us.

Ceres is completely naked, and her body looks more feminine than most Renaissance statues. Because the Catholic Church was still very influential at the time, females were not allowed to pose nude for artists. As a result, early female nudes looked like female heads atop hulking male bodies. Ceres however, is distinctly female, with rounded features and an hourglass shape. Though females nudes existed before the Juno Fountain, women were depicted as sexual objects of the male gaze. In this piece however, Ceres’ comfort with touching her own body, in a totally non-sexual way, implies agency and self-ownership. Her naturalness suggests lack of self-consciousness and a confidence that is striking even in modern day.

Ceres also represents the feminine power to give and sustain life (by giving water in this sculpture, and by giving birth in real life). The idea of female autonomy, much less feminine power, was unheard of in the Renaissance; yet Ceres seems to sidestep cultural norms.This work may seem like a small step for women, but it’s a giant leap for mankind — or should I say womankind. Kudos to you, Ammannati.

A Chance Encounter with The David

Today marks the beginning of an adventure for me, and like all true adventures, it is equally exhilarating and terrifying. Though I am a senior, and feel like I’m starting to get the hang of psych classes, this one is a little intimidating. I signed up for “Gazing” because I think Tomi-Ann is a really bright woman, and was happy to take any class she was excited about. But in truth, I know very little about the actual subject matter of the class. In my defense, it’s a big mix of things: emotion, art history, and gender studies. I know a little about emotion, although I haven’t taken that psych class yet (stay tuned for 5th block), but I know almost nothing about gender studies or art. A lot of this will be new to me, but I’m going to do my best to convey what I’ve learned.

Today was our first day of class, and I’m already in awe. We visited Michelangelo’s statue of David, which you have probably seen if you have ever looked at any art before. I had seen David many times; from the cover of my textbook to funny cooking aprons- David is all over the place. But I have to say that seeing him in person felt very different. It was almost like meeting a celebrity. Larger than life, and beneath a bright skylight, David truly commands attention.

The statue itself is at the end of a long corridor, lined with other Michelangelo statues, called The Captives. These tortured-looking figures emerge from the stone, their incomplete figures seeming tethered back. Rock melts from their extremities and crushes down on their heads, forcing the statues into strained and contorted poses. There is some debate as to whether the statues are intentionally unfinished or not. Michelangelo used to say that in carving statues, he was simply carving out figures that existed independently in the stone, freeing them. It is possible that The Captives are meant to depict the process of the statues escaping.

In sharp contrast to The Captives, David is very much complete. Every detail of his body is carefully etched out, from the curls in his hair to the veins beneath his skin. From afar, David looks very relaxed, leaning casually to the right, and gazing over his left shoulder with calm self-assuredness. We guessed that the statue represents David just after he slew Goliath.

Yet up close, the statue adopts a new meaning. David’s expression is strained, his brow furrowed. All of David’s muscles are tensed, as he rocks nervously between feet. His soft gaze seems suddenly intense and pensive, as though he is planning a way to beat the giant. Though the statue is physically colossal, David looks small and afraid.

Seeing The David led us to a discussion about what is so special about seeing the “real David” as opposed to pictures on the internet, or even a life-sized replica. In the same way seeing a rainbow or the totality of an eclipse inspires, seeing art in it’s natural place in a museum inspires the viewer to connect with a miracle. We might picture Michelangelo possessed by inspiration as he chipped away at the marble, really feeling the sweat collect on his brow and his arms become weak with the effort. We might wonder what story Michelangelo wanted to convey, and why he chose to depict David as he did. In a museum setting, the statue looks so grand, and demands the attention it deserves. Yet in museums, art can easily become mystified by scholars, over-explained by experts so that “common people” (like me) cannot have a chance to interpret the work on their own. Gazing upon The David outside of a museum (looking at a photo of the statue or replica), begs the viewer to connect with the piece of artwork instead of the artist. Because viewers outside of the museum are given less historical information about the piece, they have to make their own stories to explain the work. Both contexts are valuable, but for totally separate reasons. The style of seeing is shaped by the context. I am struck by the visceral feelings it inspires and the impacts it leaves.