The ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ or ‘Florence syndrome’ is a medically recognized psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects of great beauty. It is apparently very common in Florence’s museums, which I could easily understand.

Every year, I take a dedicated study journey and my 2020 research program was in Florence, Italy. We spent 9 days on the ground, visiting 20 museums and historic churches looking at operational norms, exhibit techniques, visitor services, admission costs, accessibility, retail/food services, etc. and, of course, the public art.

This year I used a wheelchair both for my own comfort and to better understand accessibility. It was a bariatric chair (large) and I had a chair assistant to deal with the cobble and flag stone streets in the historic center of Florence. Most museums were accessible to various degrees; some elevators were designed for smaller chairs and I had to stand and walk-in, while others had accessible entrances “around the corner” and required staff assistance to utilize. Given that most of the buildings we were visiting were between 200-600 years old, all seemed to be a fair compromise for such an historic city. Clearly the City and its museums were working to be more accessible. It is a work-in-progress everywhere.

I hired a professional art/history guide who was great in organizing the day for maximum time in museums, minimum distances between them, and for understanding the politics of the works created, and the contemporary museum community in Florence. While I can’t review every museum experience on my trip, I give Florence top marks for any museum-loving traveler; it’s also a great opportunity to study the evolution of museums historically and today.

Here are my main take-aways, but there were so many more wonderful experiences:
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Best Museum
Museum of the Duomo (Museum of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). A newer museum near the cathedral with very easy accessibility; three stories of great artifacts, all wonderfully interpreted. The museum made the best use of both area and volume in public spaces, providing the finest viewing positions among and through large artifacts to the three story reproduction façade of the historic Cathedral. These opportunities really focused the eye and made the absolutely best use of the concept and vision of the museum. The museum also makes very good use of tactile reproductions which greatly advantaged the blind and partially sighted, with each example supported by trilingual text, Italian, English and Braille. The artifacts and reproductions (mostly sculptural) were spectacular and magnificently displayed. The museum is a must visit recommendation!

Summary: The Museum has a very good printed guide, good use of Braille and technology, excellent accessible visitor routes and viewing positions, great photography options, and wonderful exhibit design concepts in a superb exhibit volume. The Museum does not provide food services, but there are many options in the street outside.
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Best Museum Experience
Museum of San Marco: Home of the Dominican Order (early C14th) and of the church reformer Savonarola (either saint or heretic). Exploring the Monastery you could very easily understand the inner workings of this heritage site. The individual 43 monk cells are each preserved with a unique fresco by Fra Angelico. If you want to understand art in the context for which it was created, this is the place and the experience. It is this context which makes San Marco a must visit. There are also modest but nice displays of the processes of book illumination and of book binding, as well as artifacts from the life of Savonarola.

Summary: There is a good guide book, very modest retail, no food services, and restricted accessible circulation (elevator does offer reasonable access with staff assistance). This appeared to be a little visited museum (which may have been just the timing of our visit), but take the time for a visit and read even a little of Savonarola and Fra Angelico before you go; it will make the experience richer.
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Best Collections
Hands down it is the Uffizi! Please don’t underestimate the time you will need to just to survey this museum. Three hours is an absolute minimum; I would suggest two days with a 3 hour visit each day to just see most things. My advice is to take a guide unless you are an art history graduate. The range and quality of art is unmistakable! You cannot visit Florence without at least a walk through this space. There is a very long visitor route but it is very easy to access. The route has beautifully decorated ceilings and off the main route, the innumerable specialist rooms are experiences in their own right. There are always large crowds so patience is essential. I would suggest that, given the richness of the collection, when you photograph something you like, take a picture of the label as well; otherwise, you will never remember it all and you will want to -- they are that beautiful.

Summary: The museum had good retail, heard there was reasonable food (not tested), good places to sit on the primary route, no seating in specialty rooms, and very reasonable and accessible elevators once you get started, very limited touchable reproductions and no videos or such (understandable that they would not want to slow down the crowd’s movement but solutions exist). We found the late afternoon was a good time to visit after most guided tour groups were off shopping.
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Biggest Disappointment
Accademia: Like every visitor to Italy, I wanted to see Michelangelo’s David. The statue experience was very good - lots of room around it even with crowds. The procession to David was flanked by the unfinished Prisoners by Michelangelo which I enjoyed more than David as I could see the “hand of the artist” more clearly, although my colleague preferred the finished David. I also found the collections of plasters in the plaster collection absolutely fascinating as it contained casts of so many famous statues from around the city. An absolute key-study collection for students, although there was no room to sit, examine or sketch.

I found the cast of the Rape of the
Sabine Women by Giambologna more interesting than the original (in the loggia outside the Palazzo Vecchio) because you could walk around the piece and really see the spiral vortex pattern in the work. There were several outstanding paintings in the collection, which if you had not made note of them before your visit and sought them out, you could easily miss. From the perspective of best museum practice, I was very disappointed as there was no clear visitor routes, no real visitor services, accessibility was a challenge, modest retail services, no evidence of food services, and I did not find a guide book but there must have been one. I was informed by residents that the Accademia was an academic institution that tolerated visitors for the revenue but they would rather the public just paid and stayed away. Loved the art, disappointed by the experience.
.. other thoughts:
While I was never personally overcome by the ‘Stendhal Syndrome’, for those who look to test their sensitivity to beauty, I suggest the following visits in Florence:

  • The Stone Wall Mosaics by the Opifico delle Pietre Dure (founded 1588) – Medici Chapel
  • The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (1442) – San Marco
  • Medici Horse’s Head (second half of 4th C BC) – Museum of Archaeology
  • Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Cellini (1554) – Loggia dei Lanzi 
  • Adoration of the Magi by Ghairlandaio (1488/89) – Museo degli Innocenti
  • and, and, and ……

Robert Barnett, Chairman

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