When Marie-Henri Beyle visited Florence, that city named for its place among waters, he thought the art he came across might kill him. Visiting the Basilica Santa Croce in 1817, he wrote that he “was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart…the wellspring of life was dried up within me. I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”
When I first heard of what is now called Stendhal’s syndrome (Beyle’s penname was Stendhal), I was overcome myself, with envy. I was studying English literature and art history in college, but I had never been so undone by my subjects.
The summer after learning about Stendhal’s syndrome, I bought a collegiate Eurail pass, starting my travels in Italy. I went to Rome and Florence. I saw the Sistine Chapel, and I thought it was beautiful, but other than slight nausea from the summer heat and dehydration, I had no physical reaction. I considered my failure to experience this ecstasy a deficiency; a true art lover, surely, could have brought herself to such a place with the appropriate knowledge and awe.
I left my art history on the sun-soaked campus in North Carolina when I joined the Army. The art I carried with me was music, from one choir to the next in North Carolina, Bosnia, Korea, Texas, and finally Seattle.