Art attack: A beginner’s guide to Stendhal Syndrome
One of the more unusual psychological disorders that I have come across is the psychosomatic illness Stendhal Syndrome – also known as Florence Syndrome and hyperkulturemia. The trigger for the condition is works of art that are perceived by the individual to be beautiful and all housed in one place (e.g., an art gallery).
When exposed to the concentrated works of art, affected individuals experience a wide range of symptoms including physical and emotional anxiety (rapid heart rate and intense dizziness, that often results in panic attacks and/or fainting), feelings of confusion and disorientation, nausea, dissociative episodes, temporary amnesia, paranoia, and – in extreme cases – hallucinations and temporary ‘madness’. The syndrome has also been applied to other situations where individuals feel totally overwhelmed when in the presence of what they perceive to be immense beauty (such as something in the natural world like a beautiful sunset). The effects are relatively short-lived and do not seem to require medical intervention.
The condition was named after the 19th century French author Henri-Marie Beyle (1783–1842) – better known by his penname ‘Stendhal’ – who at the age of 34 years (in 1817) described in detail his negative experiences (in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio) of viewing Florentine art of the Italian Renaissance (and hence it’s alternative name as Florence Syndrome). When Stendhal visited Florence’s Santa Croce Cathedral and first witnessed Giotto’s famous ceiling frescoes he became overly emotional about what he saw:
“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”.’
Since Stendhal’s published account, there have been hundreds of cases of people experiencing similar effects – particularly at the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and had often been referred to as the ‘Tourist’s Disease’. (I also noted that in online self-confessions that some people call it ‘Art Disease’). However, it wasn’t until 1979 that the condition was given the name Stendhal Syndrome by the Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini (who at the time was the chief of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital). She began to observe that many tourists visiting Florence appeared to be overcome with a range of symptoms including temporary panic attacks to seeming bouts madness lasting two or three days.
Based on her recollection of reading Stenhal’s account, she named the condition Stendhal’s syndrome. She later documented 106 similar cases admitted to the hospital in Florence between 1977 and 1986 in her 1989 book La Sindrome di Stendhahl. Her book described detailed accounts of people (including many Americans) who after viewing famous paintings or sculptures had severe emotional reactions leading to high anxiety and/or psychotic episodes. She believed the psychological disturbances were typically associated with “a latent mental or psychiatric disturbance that manifests itself as a reaction to paintings of battles or other masterpieces” The 106 cases were classed into three types:
- Type I: Patients (n=70) with predominantly psychotic symptoms (e.g., paranoid psychoses).
- Type II: Patients (n=31) with predominantly affective symptoms.
- Type III: Patients (n=5) whose predominant symptoms are somatic expressions of anxiety (e.g., panic attacks).
She also reported that 38% of Type 1 individuals had a prior psychiatric history, while over half (53%) of Type 2 individuals did. To date, there are relatively few cases published in the academic literature. The most recent case I came across was from 2009. Dr. Timothy Nicholson and his colleagues published a case report in the journal British Medical Journal Case Reports. Their case involved a 72-year old who developed a transient paranoid psychosis following a cultural tour of Florence. More specifically, they reported:
“While standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the part of Florence he was most eager to visit, he experienced a panic attack and was also observed to have become disorientated in time. This lasted several minutes and was followed by florid persecutory ideation, involving him being monitored by international airlines, the bugging of his hotel room and multiple ideas of reference. These symptoms resolved gradually over the following 3 weeks”.
In 2005, Edson Amâncio, a Brazilian neurosurgeon published a paper arguing that there was evidence that Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, particularly when viewing Hans Holbein’s masterpiece, Dead Christ, during a visit to the museum in Basle. In a 2010 issue of the British Journal of General Practice, Dr. Iain Bamforth claimed that Marcel Proust also suffered from the condition and also suggested that psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both wrote about experiences suggestive of Stendhal Syndrome. Despite hundreds of documented cases, the condition does not – as yet – appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, a team in Italy is currently examining the phenomenon more systematically by measuring tourist’s reactions (heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, etc.) as they view the artworks inside the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. As far as I am aware, they have yet to publish their findings, but when they do, I’ll update this blog.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Amâncio, E.J. (2005). Dostoevsky and Stendhal’s Syndrome, Arq Neuropsiquiatr, 63, 1099-1103.
Bamforth, I. (2010). Stendhal’s Syndrome. British Journal of General Practice, December, 945-946.
Bogousslavskya, J. & Assal, G. (2010). Stendhal’s aphasic spells: The first report of transient ischemic attacks followed by stroke. In J. Bogousslavsky, M.G. Hennerici, H. Bäzner & C. Bassetti (Eds), Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists – Part 3. (pp-130-143). Basel, Karger.
Fried, R.I. (1998). The Stendhal syndrome: Hyperkulturemia. Ohio Medicine, 84, 519–20.
Freud, S. (1936). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. Reprinted (1953-1974) in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (trans. and ed. J. Strachey), vol. 22, p. 239. London: Hogarth Press.
Guy, M. (2003). The shock of the old. Frieze (Volume 72). Located at: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_shock_of_the_old/
Magherini, G. (1989). La Sindrome di Stendhahl. Firenze: Ponte Alle Grazie.
Munsey, C. (2005). Bottles make me sick (Stendhal’s Syndrome). Bottles and Extras, Spring, 72-75.
Squires, N. (2010). Scientists investigate Stendhal Syndrome – fainting caused by great art. Daily Telegraph, July 28. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/7914746/Scientists-investigate-Stendhal-Syndrome-fainting-caused-by-great-art.html#
Posted on June 29, 2012, in Case Studies, Culture Bound Syndromes, Mania, Popular Culture, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged Art psychology, Florence Syndrome, Henri-Marie Beyle, Hyperkulturemia, Jerusalem Syndrome, La Sindrome di Stendhahl, Stendhal Syndrome, Stendhal's Syndrome, Tourist's Disease. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.
Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog site is in the very same area of interest as yours and my visitors would definitely benefit from a lot of the information you present here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Thanks a lot!
Hi Benjamin. Feel free to re-post my blogs on your site (as long as they are fully credited to me). Mark
I remember feeling dizziness while attending the exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in London. I was surprised what it could have been since I had attended some other art exhibitions and never felt like that. Then my mother felt really bad after attending major French art exhibition in our country. She had very strong headache and hightened blood pressure (she suffers from it). It’s good to know we are not strange and this condition had been observed. I suppose this may also happen while listening to some music pieces during live performances.
This syndrome is exactly how I felt when I visited Florence the first time in 2000. After 13 visits, Florence still has my heart.
Dear Mark, I have just come back from Florence. If the team checking the visitors at Palazzo Medici Riccardi was there they would have taken me as sample for their research. The museum was empty, the sunset well underway. I lost my words and needed to sit in the courtyard for several minutes to get back to my senses. Tears came down uncontrolled , the heart rapidly increased its pace. This is just to give some feedback on this… And it is not the first time it happens to me.. Florence is such a Beauty!!!
I am currently undergoing research into Stendhal syndrome and would like to speak to people who have experienced this. This research will be for my dissertation paper i aim to finish in January 2017. if you would like to help me please contact me via my WordPress page or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muslims experience ecstasy while visiting the tombs of Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him, and his descendants, and the domes of their tombs are very artistic and considered sacred symbols. The Salafi movement within Islam, by criticizing these visits from the point of view of sacred law, helps to overcome such feelings. Within Salafi movement, it is nearness to God the Creator through interacting with genuine sacred symbols like House of God by praying there and Quran by reciting it is more important than attachment to artistic symbols and tombs.
Very interesting piece. I have referenced it in my blog post ‘On Tourism’ https://theincrementaljeweller.com/2016/06/02/on-tourism/ and credited you as the author.
My late husband experienced what I would call a “light case of Stendhal Syndrome. He would be overcome with emotion when he read aloud anything that seemed to touch him. He sought psychological help for this and even joined Toastmasters to try to be more confident, to no avail. When he cried, his listeners patiently waited while he recovered and then he went on. He was unable to link these emotions to anything past or present: memories, events, thoughts, nothing. Our daughter, now 58 experiences the same symptoms; except for her, it’s hearing certain words or phrases.
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