Updated: Mar 3, 2020
When the Serendipitous meets the Elative in Italy- as essay on painting in Italy, By Brian Keeler
There is a reported phenomena when visiting some of the masterpieces of western art, particularly paintings or sculpture in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Pitti Palace, the Strozi Palace or even less-traveled repositories of art throughout the peninsula. It is called "Stendahl’s Syndrome", or "Florence Syndrome" and it is surely not a term in common parlance, but nonetheless a condition familiar to some. So what is this "Swoon-ologia" referred to in the tile? It is a coined term to fit the issue, chosen for its light-heartedness, but in a word, it is the study of swooning. Perhaps it is the frisson of an aesthetic experience and a participation in an an author's masterpiece, or the emotional levity when viewing a painting and understanding how the artist has communicated in visual terms, something extraordinarily transcendent but quotidian and available to us all.
Stendahl, or his birth name, Marie-Henri Beyle (1783-1842) - was the French writer, who assumed this German sounding nom de plume and many others . He is credited with coining this term to describe his own experience after visiting the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Here is his brief account; “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves'. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
If one piece of art could be illustrative of this phenomena of being overcome by an evocative painting, it would be the Italian baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's St, Teresa in Ecstasy, a life-sized marble statue in St. Peter's cathedral. The overt eroticism, if not the lascivious nature of the work is said to have evoked the following response from a wag of the day (a paraphrase here); "If this is spirituality, then I know something of this." Of course the allusion to sex is unavoidable and showed that the supposedly celibate popes and cardinals were probably more carnal than otherworldly.
Stendahl's Syndrome is pseudo science at best, but more to the point, just plain fun and a caprice to explain elation, if not religious-like rapture. Still the term gets at the elation and exhilaration one may experience when encountering one masterpiece after another while walking through the many hallowed halls in Florence, and perhaps elsewhere.
I too have experienced something like Stendahl's Syndrome on my first visit to Italy (and others too) back in 1992 after I did a three week stay as a participant at print-making workshop near Urbino. I then went north to encounter La Serinissima, or Venice as it is commonly called. While walking about, I perchance walked into what appeared to be just another huge basilica amongst many. This cathedral turned out to be The Church of The Frari, which contained Titian’s masterpiece, "The Assumption of the Virgin" along with a Bellini oil and many other stunning examples of Renaissance art. The painting is a tour-de-force of dynamic figurative painting, with vivid coloration and amazing draftsmanship of a twisting Virgin, clad in beautiful and intense red, in clouds with gaze fixed heavenward. He was commissioned to paint this altarpiece when he was a young man and it required a special arching frame. It has been described as the most accomplished expression of divinity with abundant depictions of rapture.
When I first saw this work of Titian's (in situ), I realized anew the power of art, and I understood its effectiveness as a didactic medium, which is to teach and inspire. In other words, I could almost hear trumpets or angels. We also recall that other paintings, or stained glass or illuminated manuscripts were created to assist with conveying scriptures to the illiterate, which happened to be the majority of the population during those eras.
My purpose here in this essay is to extend this experience of elation or emotional experience to the process of painting and casual travel in Italy. There are two other terms, rather arcane, that come in handy here. One is "flaneur", the other is "sprezzatura". The first is a French word used to describe the impressionists’ aesthetic and approach to painting as occurring by chance, as one walks about casually finding the motif as it presents itself. Without an agenda, in other words is the idea here. The other term, sprezzatura, is a lovely and apt word coined by the 16th century Italian writer, Baldasare Castiglione, to describe a certain nonchalance, effortlessness and finesse in the process of creating an artwork or in one’s comportment. Sprezzatura is also the title of recent book by Peter D’Epiro and Desmond Pinkowish that gives us examples of Italian genius over the centuries. There is a great portrait by Raphael of Baldasare Castiglione that must surely be the epitome of the Renaissance ethos, a clear-eyed and direct portrayal of bearded gentleman in black hat, yet painted with soft and sensitive brushwork- an operatic orchestration of subtle and subdued hues. We can almost feel the ideals of humanism given full expression here, as each brush stroke is a testament of veracity.
Although I love the idea of being a flaneur, as it gets us out of our agenda-driven and goal oriented modus operandi, and into the moment, as it were.
However, in regards to painting and finding the subject, the process is a little more nuanced if not proactive. It has been my experience, and that of other artist's as well, that finding the subject really entails a very active and highly engaged process of looking. The process and search for a compelling subject entails a lot of analysis and structural imaginative planning. I often like to make the comparison to air guitar but now with brushes or the intellect. There is still another phrase that encapsulate the process, which I first heard in a completely unrelated way, which was to describe how best to pack a U-Haul van. "Cognitive Spatial Reasoning" is the phrase in question here, and a somewhat pretentious term, but still an apt one to explain the visual understanding of relationships in painting.
I have been traveling, painting and teaching in Italy for many years and my purpose and reasons are a combination. Firstly, I went there to see the original works of two painters whose work I admired, Caravaggio and Raphael. My trip to the printmaking center near Urbino was chosen in part as it was just outside the town of Raphael’s birth and his home is now a museum. There is a statue of the painter in a little park at the top of the hill on that same street as his childhood home.
The combination of painting there in Italy combined with visits to museums and historic sites is a particularly effective one with each supporting the other. I have heard rather disparagingly from those who’ve never visited, that painting the Colosseum must be a rather trite and servile pursuit. We have seen so many images done badly in Pizza restaurants they reason, that who would be attracted to such an endeavor, along with drawing the tower in Pisa?
Well, if that were the case it would certainly take the wind out of one’s sales. My purpose, fortunately, is different. For example, seeking out some of the same sites that Corot painted, like the bridge at Narni, or the view of the ancient bridge, Ponte Fabricio have been part of my mission. And many others too, for example painting outside of Orvieto to discover that Turner had painted there in the 19th century or Turner’s beautiful sunset watercolor of a bridge in Spoleto, which I have also painted with students. There’s a wonderful Roman theatre in Sicily in Taormina that was painted by Hastletine that I also painted. Painters have been visiting, or better put, making pilgrimages to Italy for a long time to practice their art, learn from masters directly or to study their work. The great Flemish painter, Rubens comes to mind too, for he made a famous copy from Leonardo’s now lost frescos of the Battle of Anghiari.
This is part of the Stendahl aspect for us painters, which is to say the exhilaration of connecting with a lineage of other artists who were all pursuing their craft in Italy. With Corot and others, they were using the motif of ancient Roman ruins as the point of departure for their works. This was done however while painting en plein air and experiencing the atmosphere and light of Italy.
As I prepare a group of my Italian paintings for a new small exhibit here at my North Star Art Gallery in March of 2020 the message I want to convey in part is the joy of sitting in front of Roman antiquities, Tuscan and Umbrian agrarian scenes, Venetian light, or the beauty of the Amalfi coast from Capri. Seeing these landscapes and ancient ruins has long held a resonance and excitement for me. I think of scholars and art connoisseurs like Bernard Berenson who traversed the same areas, or authors like Samuel Clemens, Keats, Shelley, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, or Hemingway all who found the muse there. Of course many of these authors of modern times, but especially in the renaissance were actively seeking manuscripts of the lost ancients like Lucretius, Cicero, Plotinus, Pliny and others whose virtue they considered unimpeachable and offered an incentive for their own work.
So it is my hope that you will be able to relate to Stendalh’s swoons and Castiglione’s sprezaturra in a new way to connect with the timeless and eternal aspects of land and light.
To view some short vids of painting on location "en plein air" check out these Youtube links below. Also, the author has two full-length instructional DVD's on painting in Italy, available on his web sites- www.briankeeler.com and www.northstarartgallery.com. A great way to learn from an award winning painter.