Pickpockets and Stendhal Syndrome: First Impressions of Florence

Pickpockets and Stendhal Syndrome: First Impressions of Florence


The fortified palace of the Medici

I love being married to a scientist.

My wife was giving a seminar at Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence last week and instead of staying home and writing like I probably should have, I decided to tag along. It was my fourth time in Italy and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Four days in Florence didn’t change that.

The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance is a visual overload of beauty, so much so that when I gave a talk yesterday on using setting in writing, I gave Florence as an example of a place that’s impossible to describe without having an intimate knowledge of it. The entire trip I suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, a condition named after the 19th century French author who fell into a swoon from all the beauty he was exposed to in Florence. It was impossible to take it all in.


The Duomo belltower

But it wasn’t all swooning. Like Venice and Rome, Florence is hugely popular with tourists and at times I felt like I needed a machete to hack my way through the throng. Of course, where there are tourists, there are pickpockets. In the first half hour of walking downtown, one tried to get my phone. My wife and I were walking along a back street and passed a woman painted the color of stone, one of those entertainers who poses as a statue in the hope of getting a tip. Instead of posing, she was dancing, and backed up right into me even though there was plenty of room for her to avoid me.

My hand immediately went to my nearest pocket, which contained my phone. An instant later, her hand touched mine and whipped away. Then she danced off, pretending she hadn’t noticed me.

Sorry, lady. I grew up in New York and live in Madrid. You’ll have to try harder than that!

(A pickpocket did once get $5 worth of Iranian rials off me as I crossed the border into Pakistan, but that’s another story)


The Duomo as seen from the top of the belltower

Other than becoming more suspicious of dancing statues, my main takeaway was that I need to learn far more about the Italian Renaissance. My interests have always been ancient and medieval history, with a big leap into the 19th and 20th centuries. So I found myself woefully ignorant of many of the artists and scientists I was learning about. I need to remedy that. I’m eying two classics on the subject: Burke’s The Italian Renaissance and Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Can someone more knowledgeable suggest which I should read first?

While I recover on the chaise longue with my smelling salts, here are some photos. Once I’ve sorted out my thoughts, I’ll be posting on Galileo in Florence (including his preserved fingers), Byzantine influences on the early Renaissance, and some little-discussed art in the Uffizi Gallery.

Hey, has anyone seen my wallet???


All photos (c) Sean McLachlan. Scroll down for more!

Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page. His latest book, The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, is a neo-pulp detective novel set in Cairo in 1919.



The Ponte Vecchio, a 14th century bridge lined with shops



The 15th century gilded door to the Duomo Baptistry, since
replaced with a replica. The original is now in the Duomo museum



A panel from portal to the Duomo. I found this interesting
because it has a realistic view of the pyramids



“The line into the Duomo is how long???”




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