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Frank Hesse / Projects / Florence – From St. Croce to the Institute of Art History (2006) Space Space
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Video, 11:50 minutes.

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MPEG4, 12 min, 352 x 288 Pixel, 30,88 MB (Quicktime 6 or higher)

The video is a documentation of the path between the Basilica di Santa Croce and the Institute of Art History in Florence. The path connects two places that symbolically represent two opposing picture-perception standpoints: the Basilica di Santa Croce - for the more passionate, and the Institute of Art History – for the more mediatorial approach to art. While an unseen protagonist walks through the streets, the story of the two places, and the elucidation of their connection, is told through subtitles.

At the beginning of the 19. century, the French author and prototype of the modern tourist, Stendhal, visited the Basilica di Santa Croce. The church is blest with an opulent collection of artworks. Stendhal is overwhelmed by the frescos, and suffers a nervous breakdown. As a result, he eventually lends his name to the so-called Stendhal-Syndrome, which has been the subject of Graziella Magherini’s studies at the University of Florence since 1970. The affliction describes the »detrimental effect artworks can have on people with sensitive dispositions«. To this end, she examined over a hundred cases during a period of ten years. She discovered that the ailment mostly afflicts people between the ages of 26 and 40, who are travelling alone and who have been exposed to works of art, without any particular plan, and without the mediation of a professional guide. The victims then endure lasting emotional disorders, suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and feelings of guilt. At the end of the 19. century, the Institute of Art History is opened in Florence. The Institute is co-founded by the Hamburg art-historian Aby Warburg. Later, Warburg receives world-wide acclaim for his Renaissance studies, and is widely accepted as the founder of modern art-history. Warburg, who had a history of psychological instability, appears to have employed his scientific methodology to counter a deep-rooted fear of being thrown off balance by a condition akin to the Stendhal Syndrome.

The video images were recorded at night, using a hand-held camera. The fuzziness of the images, caused by the pumping of the camera’s auto-focus, hints at the amateur photography of tourists, as well as suggesting romantic-picturesque painting, and the cinematic expression of a nervous breakdown. The frames-per-second frequency is gradually reduced during the video. After a while, the movements in the video become coarse, the images appear temporarily stroboscopic, and eventually, they falter: the video turns into a slide-show. As a result, the organisation of visual perception becomes an increasingly important theme, as well as the meaning of categories, such as similarity and difference, proximity and distance, ecstasy and insight.
Download video as
MPEG4, 12 min, 352 x 288 Pixel, 30,88 MB (Quicktime 6 or higher)


Subtitles ...>
Subtitles

The Basilica di Santa Croce, with its many tombs and numerous works of art, is one of Florence's most imposing examples of ecclesiastical architecture. The French author Marie-Henri Beyle, better known under the pseudonym of 'Stendhal', compiles several travel diaries and serves as a prototype for the modern tourist. On the 22nd of January 1817, whilst visiting the Santa Croce, he suffers a nervous breakdown: »Il Volterrano's Sibyls filled me with the most overwhelming sense of pleasure I have ever experienced from an artwork. The mere thought of being in Florence and the proximity of all those great men, whose graves I had visited, threw me into a kind of ecstasy. I was lost in the perception of the noblest beauty, which I could see, and theoretically touch, before my very eyes. My excitement had reached the point whereheavenly feelings evoked by art unite with human passion. Upon leaving the Santa Croce, I was suffering strong palpitations; they call it a nerve attack in Berlin; I was exhausted and in fear of falling down.« He lends his name to the so-called Stendhal-syndrome, a condition that Graziella Magherini discovered and has been studying since the 1970s, in her capacity as Head-of-Psychology at Florence's largest hospital. The condition describes »the unhealthy effect artworks can have on sensitive dispositions«. To this end, she examined more than a hundred cases over a period of ten years. She discovered that the ailment mostly afflicts people between the ages of 26 and 40, who are travelling alone and who have been exposed to works of art, without any particular plan, and without the mediation of a professional guide. The victims then endure lasting emotional disorders, suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and feelings of guilt. Some of them feel a strong desire to destroy the paintings that have provoked the condition. According to rumour, one Florentine hospital has three beds permanently reserved for such cases. The tail end of the 19th century was, at the time, generally considered to be to a »nervous period«. Florence is teetering on the brink of Modernism and has a reputation for being the suicide capital. In 1897, the art historian and co-founder of the Institute of Art History, Aby Warburg, settles in Florence. Later, he becomes world famous for his Renaissance studies and is considered the father of modern art-history. Rather than focusing on a work's style, he concentrates on its meaning relative to a specific intellectual concept. He works with a huge amount of images from various sources. He weaves relationships between the pictures, and orders them according to a »good neighbour« principle. Warburg's relationship to pictures is essentially determined by a quest for knowledge, and not by pleasure or even, passion. He finds the appreciation of art for the sake of pleasure, repugnant. He fears that emotions, romantic fervour and ecstasy could suck the beholder into a vortex of irrationality. His contemporaries believe that he is in danger, and that he seeks psychological stability in his scientific activities. Warburg considers his work to be the path of enlightenment and reason, the overcoming of »medieval-eastern irrationality« and »oriental states of fear«. Language is of particular importance to Warburg: it is capable of controlling the conflicting elements and maintaining the equilibrium. This, however, requires recollection and this »reflexive and habitual remembering leads to the institute.« It is the institutions and archives that serve him as the last retreat from the claws of anxiety, before he eventually suffers a psychological breakdown in 1914, which takes him ten years to overcome.

Translation: Philip Jacobs