Fainting at Paintings
Florence is drenched in art. It is on every corner, down every cobbled street, in every piazza and palazzo. Never mind Tony Blair’s genteel “hand of history” on your shoulder. In this Tuscan city, history pulls you into her arms, kisses you passionately, then swings you around and around until your head spins.
For some people, this is more than a metaphor. The myriad masterpieces in Florence actually make them ill. Symptoms of “Florence Syndrome” include nausea, dizziness, fainting, panic attacks, hyperventilation, tachycardia, temporary amnesia and disorientation. Some hallucinate. Some end up in hospital, literally overwhelmed by beauty.
Despite sounding like something from a romance novel, the psychological disorder is an actual thing, documented, and with the victims to prove it.
The most famous sufferer to detail his symptoms was French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. A lifelong Italophile, he visited Florence in 1817. On Friday, 17th January (the Italian equivalent of Friday the 13th), he went to the largest Franciscan church in the world, the Basilica di Santa Croce, to admire the Giotto frescoes and numerous monuments commemorating important Italians over the centuries. He relates what happened next in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
He was so shocked by his reaction that he had to leave the cathedral immediately. He found a bench outside, sat down and read poetry to calm himself down!
It is tempting to think Stendhal visited Florence accompanied by the “Green Fairy” so beloved by French artists and writers. Except it is about a century too early for the absinthe craze and its notorious hallucinogenic effects. Besides, if you look at his original writing you will see he has form regarding an over-emotional reaction to the arts.
In the translator’s foreword to the 1959 edition of Rome, Naples and Florence Richard N. Coe writes of Stendhal’s visit to a theatre in Ivrea, Italy at the age of just 17: “Having nothing better to do and being filled to overflowing with curiosity he went to the opera and there in the third-rate theatre with its creaking stage, down-at-heel players and its patchy orchestra came the blinding, almost mystic revelation. ‘J’éprouvai un bonheur divin’ (I experienced a divine happiness) he wrote many years later..It was the discovery of music… but it was the discovery of much more — of a freedom, a release, a welling-up of unknown emotions, a happiness so wholly unexpected…that henceforth he knew, as if by some inner prompting, that there was no life possible for him, save southward of the Alps.”
If dodgy arias in a wonky theatre can bring on a touch of the vapors, imagine what the full-blown Florence experience would do.
Some cynical types accuse Stendhal of exaggeration, falsehood even. They point out that his contemporaneous diary makes no mention of the unexpected turn of events at Santa Croce. The suggestion is that he may have added the art-induced swooning episode later for dramatic effect. In his preface, Stendhal writes “These notes were jotted down in 1817, nor have I altered so much as 20 lines of them.” That seems to imply he didn’t make things up.
Unless he made that up.
Art Meets Psychology
Whether it is true or not, the Frenchman’s account certainly left its mark on Graziella Magherini, head of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital. She was the first person to use the term Stendhal Syndrome to describe an “art attack”.
Dr Magherini’s hospital was located a stone’s throw from the historic center of Florence with its cornucopia of art treasures. Tourists who got sick would therefore go to the hospital’s A&E department as it was closest.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Dr.Magherini and her colleagues noticed an increase in the numbers of patients being admitted with sudden, unexplained psychiatric episodes.
They observed that these patients were all foreìgn, all on art-related visits, and all in fine mental health prior to arriving in Florence. They documented 107 cases between 1977 and 1986 of “acute and unexpected psychiatric breakdown among tourists exposed to artworks” (Rivista di Psichiatria vol 49).
The doctor and her colleagues initially named the affliction Mal di Storia (“History Sickness”) because they believed it was caused by tourists being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of historic sites in Florence. But gradually, they realized there was more to it than that. In a 2019 interview with students from the European Humanities University she explains that the episodes were the product of “not one factor but many”, including: “sensitivity, the structure of your personality…travelling itself which deprives you of your daily points of reference” and, finally and significantly, “the encounter with the great masterpieces.”
Remembering Stendhal’s vivid description, they settled on La Sindrome di Stendhal (Stendhal Syndrome) as an apt name for the condition. Magherini detailed the cases and analysis in a 1989 book of the same name. Nowadays, it’s also commonly referred to as Florence Syndrome because of its close relationship with the city.
Magherini is best known today for her interdisciplinary work connecting psychiatry, psychoanalysis and human science. She is one of the founders of the study group Art and Psychology which does what it says on the tin: interprets great works of art using a mix of culture, history, psychology and psychoanalysis.
Stendhal Syndrome defined
In an interview in Italian with online magazine stilearte.it, she is asked for her own definition of the condition. This is what she says (my translation): “Stendhal syndrome refers to a series of critical experiences, episodes of acute psychic decompensation, sudden and of short duration, all of a benign nature, that is without consequences (and it’s important to emphasize that), and all related to travel to art destinations.” (Intervista con Graziella Magherini, Giovanna Galli).
I had to look up the meaning of “psychic decompensation.” It means a deterioration in mental, emotional or spiritual health. Magherini describes three kinds of disturbance:
· a feeling of panic and anxiety with palpitations, difficulty breathing, a sense of unreality and a feeling that you are on the verge of passing out. This is often accompanied by a strong desire to return to the home country.
· crying fits and depression with the associated feelings of unfounded guilt, anguish and lack of motivation or the opposite: euphoria, over-excitement and lack of self-restraint.
· thought disturbances, altered perception of sounds and colors and a sense of being persecuted.
Magherini points out that the second and third type of reaction are more serious and usually occur in individuals with a previous history of mental illness even though they were feeling quite well before their trip. The episodes can last between a few hours and a few days.
The reaction is not caused by any specific painting, statue or artist
Interestingly, a large proportion of the sufferers are women in their early 40s travelling alone. In general, the syndrome tends to affect younger rather than older people.
Is there a particular work in Florence that triggers the condition? In which case perhaps there could be warning signs put up, rather like they do with flash photography for people suffering from epilepsy.
Magherini is emphatic on this. The reaction is not caused by any specific painting, statue or artist. Rather it is “some aspect of the individual aesthetic object which, under certain circumstances and depending on the viewer’s history, renders them unable to contain their emotions and creates a feeling of discomfort.” (my translation)
Although most articles on the syndrome only mention her first book, she wrote a follow-up in 2007 with the wonderful title I’ve Fallen in Love with a Statue: Beyond the Stendhal Syndrome. This addresses some of the most common questions arising from her first book and contains more case studies. Incidentally, she devotes an entire section to Michelangelo’s David which she calls “the most beautiful statue in the world.” David lives a bilocated life in Florence, the real version is in the Galleria dell’Accademia and the replica in the Piazza della Signoria. Sadly, we can only imagine how many cases of Stendhal’s Syndrome either version has provoked.
The European Humanities interview describes a case from her second book:
“A young Czech painter, Kamil, had hitchhiked to Italy –with evening clothes in his backpack as though he had come to take his customary place at a ceremony of some sort. He was a very fine painter, and when he went to see Masaccio’s work in the Cappella Brancacci, upon exiting he had an experience that was at once aesthetic and ecstatic, a feeling he was exiting from himself, dissolving away. He collapsed on the steps. He told me that in that moment of panic and prostration the only thing he could think of was his bed at home in Prague and being spirited straight to the safety of home and family.”
The most recent case of Stendhal’s Syndrome I could find was reported in December 2018. It didn’t feature a foreigner, but an Italian. The male visitor to the city’s Uffizi Museum had a heart attack while staring at Botticelli’s 15th-century masterpiece Birth of Venus. Fortunately for him a group of young cardiologists was visiting at the same time and treated him with a defibrillator. He was then taken to hospital and what became of him after that, I’m not sure. Italian daily the Corriere della Sera ran an article about the incident which contained an interview with the Director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt who said: “I’m not a doctor, all I know is that visiting a museum like ours, which is full of masterpieces, can certainly cause emotional, psychological, and even physical stress.” Apparently, this happens more often than you would think. “Recently someone fainted in front of Caravaggio’s Medusa,” said Schmidt.
Film director and writer Dario Argento had his own mini Stendhal experience as a child when visiting the Parthenon and it was the inspiration for his 1996 horror movie La Sindrome Di Stendhal. A woman suffering from the syndrome in a museum is kidnapped by a serial killer. Sounds a riot. I haven’t watched it but I believe it is on YouTube.
The light-headed, other-worldly sensation on reaching a much-anticipated destination after a long journey is nothing new. In the introduction to a paper Placebos, Faith and Morals, Thomas Gayle Moore of Stanford University quotes the words of pilgrim Ahmed: “Seeing … for the first time creates ecstasy in non-believers. It reduces believers to tears. … Pilgrims … some …in some dream-like world; still others unconsciously weeping tears of ecstasy.” (Ahmed 1988, 144–45)
Moore explains that Ahmed “… is reporting on a visit to Kaaba, the most religious site in Islam, but the account could be that of a devout Catholic on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or an Orthodox believer hiking up Mt Athos in Greece, or a Hindu journeying to the Ganges.”
Maybe what today’s art tourists are experiencing in Florence is something that religious pilgrims have described for centuries. It could be that in today’s secular society, art serves as a substitute for religion.
It has to be pointed out that other cities have syndromes too. There is Jerusalem Syndrome, known since the 1930s, where the visitor suffers a psychotic episode triggered by being in the Holy city. Often, they believe they are the Messiah.
An article about it by Chris Nashawaty in Wired magazine quotes psychiatrist Pesach Lichtenberg who specializes in the treatment of these patients. He says there are between 50 and 100 cases a year and that “during times of uncertainty and conflict (not infrequent in Israel), admissions to his ward spike.”
Rather than being bamboozled by beauty, the tourists are dizzy with disappointment.
There is also Paris syndrome, coined in 1986. The victims of this are almost exclusively Japanese and although the symptoms are familiar: hallucinations, fainting, an overwhelming desire to return home, the cause is almost the reverse of Florence Syndrome. Rather than being bamboozled by beauty, the tourists are dizzy with disappointment. The city of light has not lived up their expectations, stoked up by films, fashion shoots and romantic novels.
Art and the brain
Is there some kind of physiological or psychological explanation for the Florence phenomenon and its sister syndromes? Rather charmingly, she is a proud Florentine after all, Dr Magherini puts it down to Florence being “haunted by the ghosts of the great.”
Maybe sufferers of Florence syndrome have some kind of neurological overload brought on by sudden and concentrated exposure to art
The condition is not recognised by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). But that is not to say there isn’t a genuine neurological effect. A 2014 study by Innocenti et al of the University of Florence The Stendhal Syndrome Between Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience concluded that: There is no scientific evidence to define the Stendhal Syndrome as a specific psychiatric disorder; on the other hand, there is evidence that the same cerebral areas involved in emotional reactions are activated during the exposure to artworks.
There is a new field called neuroaesthetics. It uses brain imaging like TMS and MRI to see which parts of the brain fire up when viewers look at different works of art. In Beauty and the Brain, an article by Faith Pak and Ethan Reichsman for The Crimson, they write of the findings of Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London. “With the help of neuroimaging technology, he has discovered that there is an area of the brain called the medial orbital frontal cortex that always ‘lights up,’ or correlates with the perception of beauty, whether it is in response to visual, musical, mathematical, or even moral beauty. Although each type of experience activates different combinations of areas in the brain, the overlap always occurs in the medial orbital frontal cortex.”
Maybe sufferers of Florence syndrome have some kind of neurological overload brought on by sudden and concentrated exposure to art, creating hallucinations, disorientation and anxiety. Maybe it is all just a chemical reaction, triggered by certain symbols, colors, shapes and associations.
Degrees of sensitivity
Whatever the explanation, in the tradition of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” it is all great PR for the city, not that she needs it. I have lived and worked in Florence for almost four years and it is as jaw-droppingly glorious now as it was when I first visited as a bedazzled tourist many moons ago. I have seen a lot of art since then. But even when faced with the enigmatic Madonna and UFO in the Palazzo Vecchio (not its real name, which is Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John-but just look at it!) I have never felt close to passing out. I need a course in neuroaesthetics, obviously.
And what of the good doctor — has art ever made her heart beat faster? She is a sensitive soul it tuns out. Although she hasn’t experienced Stendhal syndrome per se, she has had emotional experiences as a tourist while travelling in the US and the Algerian desert. However, she says these were caused by the vastness of nature and the feeling of being connected to “something beyond” rather than triggered by artworks. “But that,” she adds, “is a whole other discussion, worthy of deeper investigation.”
Stay tuned for the “Gaia Syndrome”!