Great Italian Art Can Lay You Low

We live in perilous times. Each day seems to being some new threat to our wellbeing: radon gas, terrorists, Alar, Lyme Disease, and that hurtling astroid that narrowly missed spaceship earth.

If we learned nothing else from Ronald Reagan, it was that trees pollute. The more we know the scarier existence gets. The newest scourge on mankind has recently been discovered in Florence Italy, of all places.

Art, yes, art can be hazardous to our health. Not all art, thank heavens. There is no evidence, as yet, that velvet portraits of Elvis have a deleterious effect. But large doses of chef d'oeuvres — rooms full of Titians and walls littered with canvases by Reubens — have induced swooning, hyperventilation and even hallucinations in visitors to Florence such as myself.

An Italian psychiatrist has documented this malady and dubbed it "Stendhal Syndrome" after the 19th century French writer who became overwhelmed by the frescos in the Church of Santa Croce.

There seems little doubt that one can be laid low by a Tintoretto or get a queasy belly from a Botticelli, not to mention palpitations from being too fond of Madonnas — depictions of the religious icon not the rock star.

We Americans are among the nationalities most susceptible to coming unglued when confronted with multiple masterpieces, perhaps because the culture shock of going from the new world to the old one is so strong. After all what passes for art in this country is often sold on the sidewalks of shopping malls or in stores that also hawk T-shirts.

Rather than acclimate ourselves slowly to this strange and wondrous Italian landscape, we tend to dash about medieval Florence clutching our guidebooks and soaking up as much culture as possible, as quickly as we can.

One of the city's lesser museums is likely to proffer more art objects than we have encountered in a lifetime. A huge gallery like the Pitti Palace, itself a 15th century Renaissance creation, is simply overflowing with Van Dycks — that's Sir Anthony, not Dick — along with Bartolinis, Giottos, Domatellos, etc.

As yet there are no concessions to those of us at risk in Florence. I was there this past fall with my wife and bambino and we saw no road signs reading: "Great Art Zone Dead Ahead" or "Yankees No Go — Too Many Van Goghs!" Nor did the paintings, sculptures and frescoes have small rectangular warning labels in their lower left corners proclaiming: "This Magnum Opus can induce dizziness , disorientation and delusions." We saw no psychiatric comfort stations in the Uffizi Museum or anywhere else.

What's more, there are no laws in Italy against DWIWA: Driving While Intoxicated With Art. It's anyone's guess how many Florentine fender benders have been caused by Leonardo da Vinci.

I wish I could claim that I contracted Stendhal's Syndrome during our whirlwind week scurrying about Tuscany. It would make swell cocktail conversation back here in the states. Besides, it isn't a particularly severe ailment. The cure, according to one Italian psychiatrist, is three or four days of rest and perhaps a mild sedative: Heck, I was ready for the cure even though I didn't have the disease!

Then, apparently, all the victim wants to do is go home and watch reruns of "Gilligan's Island." Despite meeting most of the disease's criteria, such as small town American on his first trip to Europe with the combined cultural sophistication of the Simpsons, I didn't experience one symptom.

I gazed at Bottichelli's "Birth of Venus " (on the half shell) without so much as a twitch. Tintoretto's massive "Leda and the Swan" only made me wonder whether the artist had used a brush or a roller. I remained perfectly calm at the tomb of Michelangelo.

Our son Jackson, who was almost two at the time, did seem to be adversely affected by museums, however: First he would say, "Me wanna go home" with rising vehemence (He apparently was under the delusion that we were in New Haven). Then he would fall asleep and remain like a sack of potatoes in my aching arms for several hours as we toured the galleries — the airline lost our stroller.

There were times in Italy when I did come close to fainting. For example, upon arrival when the rent-a-car man couldn't find our reservation or a car seat for our son. When he said we owed him several hundred thousand lire (this was in 1988), I broke into a cold sweat that would have made Stendhal look as healthy as LeBron James.

With the recent spate of publicity surrounding this latest plague on the human race, it is only a matter of time before researchers begin testing the toxicity of art on lesser mammals. Rodent cages will be outfitted wall-to-wall with mini Michelangelo's; tiny frescos will adorn the ceilings, affording the mice no respite from cultural claustrophobia. Animal rights groups, understandably, will go bonkers.

Now, my fellow unsophisticated Americans, until the scientific results are in I would suggest that we all take it slow in Florence and such like destinations. As someone once opined, "Vita bravis, longa ars," whatever that means.