Rapid Heartbeat. Vertigo. Fainting. Visions. These are symptoms of a condition known as Stendhal Syndrome. In 1817, a French author made a visit to the Tuscan city. There, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, while gazing upon the frescoes of Giotto, Stendhal was overcome by such powerful emotions, described as “celestial sensations,” that his “Life was drained from [him.]” The trigger for this response: the presence of awe-inspiring and transcendent art. This condition is also known as Florence Syndrome.

IMAG0874Viewing Michelangelo’s David for the first time, my mother says, almost drove her to tears. Such was the majesty of this sculpture. And masterworks of painting, sculpture, and architecture can be found on practically every street corner in this rather diminutive city. I would expect nothing less for it was here that the Italian Renaissance first came into being, like Athena springing from Zeus’ head or Venus arising from the sea foam.

It begins with conflict and decay for the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. In the resulting vacuum of power, Italy is divided into warring city-states, each controlled by wealthy, influential families, each seeking to subdue the other. One family in particular comes to dominate the region; the Medici. Political intrigue, murder, and blood feud characterize the Medici’s rise to power and furthermore inspire the writings of Machiavelli.

Fortunately for posterity, war was not the only means of proving superiority. To gain political support and power, the great families of the time exalted their native cities by commissioning magnificent works of art. The Medici certainly did not remain apart from this competition. In fact, they were the most prolific and generous patrons of them all, and the citizens loved them for it. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, Boticelli, Giotto, all were funded by the Medici.

Perhaps Machiavelli is correct in saying that “the ends justify the means.”

Florence at its height could not fail to evoke the ancient city of Athens. Home to legendary artists, writers, politicians, and thinkers; Home to wondrous works of art and architecture; is it any wonder that those who experience it firsthand are struck with awe?