Guest Column: David and the Stendhal Syndrome

by Mary Bryant*

I’ve read about the Stendhal syndrome (also known as the Florence syndrome), where one becomes physically and emotionally overwhelmed by viewing a work (s) of art. The syndrome is named after the French author Stendhal, the pen name for Marie-Henri Beyle  I didn’t put much stock into it.

Then it happened. Recently my good friend Bev and I took a short trip to Milan, Italy.   There were several things on our list of “to do’s.”  We agreed on a day trip to Florence on their very efficient high-speed train.  We had mastered the mass transit systems, buses, subways and trains so with great confidence we made our way to the Milan Central Train Station and fearlessly headed to Florence.

Bev and I are experienced travelers though the energy of our youthful years is somewhat spent, so even with the help of public transportation we found ourselves taking every opportunity to rest, people watch, sip some thing different at each stop and breathe in the magnificent art and architecture. The viewing of David in Florence was the turning point for me creating a dizzying sensation.

Michelangelo’s David resides in the Academia Gallery.  As we were standing in line to get into the gallery, my memory took me back to the 5th grade in the middle 1950s in small town Kansas. There was a picture of David in our history book. I was pretty naive and had no brothers so I wondered why he had a leaf covering his lower torso. (I suppose at that time public schools were not allowed to show pictures of nude bodies.)  I knew little of male genitalia and wondered what all of the boys in the class were giggling and whispering about…what was behind the leaf? What could it possibly be covering up? And where could it have come from? It just looked out-of-place.  I pondered that question until my mother came home from work that evening.  She was not happy or willing to discuss this with me.  Sex education was not a priority.

Back to David… all 17 feet and over 12,000 pounds of David… carved from a single piece of the whitest marble possible …Carrara marble from Tuscany.  Perfectly proportioned David with blood vessels sticking out on his arms and hands.  The detail was amazing from his curly hair down to his toes –  smooth and shiny and muscular David.  It’s arguably the most perfect and beautiful piece of art in the world. David has stood in solemn silence for over 500 years as literally countless visitors have admired and photographed him.

Until visiting Florence and viewing David I have never had a problem communicating, verbally or in writing, but David literally struck me dumb. Shaking. Crying. Covered in goose bumps I was unable to move.

It was exquisite. It’s art on another level and was more than I had anticipated, and something I couldn’t really comprehend. I still grapple with words to describe David and to give Michelangelo and his creations justice. I found out later a local hospital, Santa Maria Nuova, has a few of their staff available to comfort tourists who experience the syndrome.

After our visit with David, my friend Bev and I sought comfort in a glass or two of Tuscany wine drinking in silence during the early evening at a restaurant watching people and gazing at the architecture.

*A romantic traveler