Imagine witnessing an object of art so beautiful that it leaves you in a trance, completely spellbound and in a state of ecstasy. If you have ever felt this, chances are you experiencing Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition that afflicts some people when in the presence of remarkably beautiful works of art. Named after Stendhal, a 19th-century French author who first experienced it during a visit to the Italian city of Florence in 1817, it afflicts hundreds of tourists who visit the birthplace of the Renaissance and is also known as Florence syndrome.
A recent case occurred in 2018, when a tourist visited the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The man suffered a heart attack while viewing The Birth of Venus, the legendary masterpiece of Sandro Botticelli that depicts the mythological emergence of ancient Greek goddess Venus from the ocean. This is only one example of many such incidents in a city packed with magnificent art in every form. From famed frescoes, paintings and statues to incredible architecture and altarpieces, the sheer assortment of artistic genius is inescapable. And for some, it can be a little too much. Here’s how Stendhal syndrome was first discovered, and how it got its name.
A Case of “History Sickness”
In the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, Italy, a psychiatrist began to observe strange symptoms affecting foreign tourists who were visiting the Tuscan city for the first time. Dr. Graziella Magherini noted that the common theme among all these patients was that there were in the presence of various depictions of Renaissance art and culture when they started to feel overwhelmed. Over the course of a decade, she studied more than a hundred cases that she initially named “Mal di Storia”, Italian for “History Sickness”. She would later recall a precedent in the book “Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio” by Stendhal, 19th-century French author who described falling unconscious when confronted with the cultural and historical richness of Florence.
Who was Stendhal?
Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a French writer and traveler. Born in Grenoble in 1783, he served in the French administration during the Napoleonic wars, and under Napoleon during the failed invasion of Russia. His travels through France, Germany, Italy and several other European cities would inspire much of his writing, and he is regarded to be one of the first writers to popularise the use of the word “tourist”. Even his choice of nom de plume was inspired by German the city of Stendal, where he fell madly in love with a woman in 1807, though he was a prolific womanizer and would go on to use many more pseudonyms. In 1817, he visited the Italian city of Florence for the first time, and this is where he experienced something unique.
Stendhal’s Celestial Sensation
Sometimes called the “Athens of the Middle ages”, Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, producing great artists, writers and thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Dante Alighieri, Niccolò Machiavelli and many more. The art, architecture and literature created at the time made Florence a cultural capital and it is still regarded as one of the most beautiful cities of the world today. When Stendhal visited this historic Italian city, he made his way to the Basilica of Santa Croce which housed the buried remains of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. As he gazed upon Volterrano’s fresco of the Sibyls, he describes the sensation he felt:
“I was already in a kind of ecstasy by the idea of being in Florence, and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in contemplating sublime beauty, I saw it close-up — I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emotion where the celestial sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations; the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.”
Similar Syndromes, and the Cure
While Stendhal syndrome isn’t officially classified as a mental disorder, it is definitely a unique form of culture shock to look out for if you ever visit Florence. It certainly reveals an interesting relation between art and the human psyche. Other cities have also been known to create unique mental phenomena, like the infamous Paris syndrome which affects Asian tourists who become deeply disappointed that the city isn’t as beautiful as they imagined it to be, a complete opposite of the Stendahl syndrome. Another notable one is Jerusalem syndrome, where visitors to the holy city exhibit an intense and spontaneous religious psychosis. However, the cure to all of these syndromes is fairly straightforward and should be obvious: just leave the city and all symptoms disappear.