Stendhal Syndrome

Amy J Wood

Have you ever felt giddy admiring a van Gogh, lost all sense of reason looking at a Raphael or turned to jelly before a Botticelli? Shameful wordplay aside, if the answer is yes, you may have suffered a bout of Stendhal Syndrome. Also known as Florence Syndrome, the psychosomatic disorder can develop when an individual is exposed to particularly beautiful art, inducing feelings of elation, exaltation and power as well as malaises such as disorientation, temporary amnesia and rapid heartbeat. Whoever thought a trip to the Louvre could be so fraught with peril?

Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, 1482.

Coined in 1989 by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, the term was introduced in her study La sindrome di Stendhal and named so in reference to its first-known literary documentation by French novelist Stendhal. In his 1817 book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, Stendhal stated that upon visiting the Renaissance art in Florence, “[he] had palpitations of the heart […] [and] walked with the fear of falling”, almost fainting beneath the frescos in the Santa Croce. Nowadays, so acknowledged is the disorder that Italian newspaper Firenze Spettacolo published a list of places in Florence most likely to induce it, high on the list include the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi and the Palazzo Pitti.

Luca Giordano’s ‘Triumph of the Medici in the clouds of Mount Olympus’ 1684-1686. One of the frescos in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi that brought on Stendhal’s heart palpitations.

During her work as a psychiatrist, Magherini noticed that the pathology was most prevalent amongst tourists visiting Florence. She concluded that in the majority of cases the city itself is the trigger and that its enchanting Renaissance beauty, medieval structures and rich sense of the past can considerably heighten the elation and stress of being on holiday, making certain tourists more susceptible to manic moods. This could explain why Italians are seemingly immune to the syndrome.

Magherini also identified a deeper and darker Freudian aspect to the ailment; she states that for certain sensitive people, art is capable of unlocking a repressed trauma within the unconscious, pulling it to the forefront of the conscious mind and consequently, in so many words, opening a can of worms. These ‘sensitive people’ are often artistically-inclined, making artists, poets and writers particularly susceptible. Indeed, there is no shortage of authors who’ve documented their dizzying art encounters. There is evidence in his wife’s diaries that Dostoevsky had an ecstatic and transcendental experience when viewing Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ; an experience he confirmed in his novel The Idiot, writing; “Faced with a picture like this, a man could lose his faith”. Proust, too, had a similar euphoric episode when observing Vermeer’s View of Delft, an incident that he later transmuted through the character Bergotte, who collapses and dies at a Vermeer exhibition in his epic Remembrance of Things Past.

Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’, 1520-22.

The past few decades have seen numerous stories in the press of cases of extreme Stendhal-esque behaviour whereby individuals have acted on their emotions towards works of art. Amongst those include; a Russian who struck the Mona Lisa with a terracotta pot she’d bought in the Louvre gift shop, a young woman who kissed a Cy Twombly painting leaving a red lipstick smudge across it, a man who put a hole in a Monet at the Orsay Museum and a mathematician who attacked a Roman statue with a hammer. Just what is it that compels people like this to externalize their emotions towards great works of art in such an acute manner? Whether it be an all-out art attack or a lustful caress, perhaps the mental weight of being so close to something so significant to mankind’s cultural history can awaken an aesthetic response in them so powerful that for a few seconds the thought of being able to interact with or affect the piece in some way seems like the right thing to.

Kissed: Cy Twombly’s ‘Phaedrus’

Stendhal Syndrome doesn’t end there, more extreme yet is Rubens Syndrome, which is characterised as a spontaneous need to engage in erotic activity after viewing art, in particular works depicting nudes and orgies such as those by the prolific Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. This kind of cultural seduction is more common than one would believe – a recent study by the Roman Institute of Psychology involving 2000 visitors revealed that 20 percent of them had had an “erotic adventure” in a museum.

Peter Paul Rubens ‘The Union of Earth and Water’, 1618