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Art palpitations: A brief look at Ruben’s Syndrome

In a previous blog I examined Stendhal Syndrome where some people when exposed to the concentrated works of art, 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’. While researching that article, I also came across another condition that would appear to be related to Stendhal Syndrome, namely ‘Rubens Syndrome’ based on a report published in 2000 by the Roman Institute of Psychology (RIOP).

The RIOP reported that 20% of people had engaged in an “erotic adventure” inside an art museum, and the findings were taken from a national Italian survey of 2000 people. Other places where the respondents said they had “erotic adventures” included beaches (43%), trains (22%), and nightclubs (18%). The report’s authors christened this state of emotional sexual arousal as ‘Rubens Syndrome’ named after the Flemish Old Master who painted many sensuous nudes throughout his career.

The researchers claim that the Rubens Syndrome is “a spontaneous response to the beauty of art and that those who are afflicted by it do not enter a museum with sex specifically on their minds”. The report also claims that art admirers are more predisposed towards erotic suggestion and that mythological sexual scenarios are more psychologically engaging than abstract art.  Although I don’t doubt that for most people abstract art is less engaging on a psychological level, I know of no empirical research demonstrating that art lovers are more predisposed towards erotic suggestion (although it wouldn’t surprise me if they were).

I have been unable to track down a copy of the report and as far as I can ascertain, the results of the study have not been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal (therefore I have no idea as to how robust the data are, how the data were collected, and how representative the data were of typical visitors to art museums). The study also claimed that Greek sculptures and works by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) were more likely to lead to sex than artworks by Paulo Veronese (1528-1588) or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1698-1770). The psychologists also compiled a list of the best Italian art museums based on their “ability to awaken Eros”, the Greek god of love.

(If you are really interested, the best seven art museums for erotic stimulation were the Palazzo Doria [Genoa], Pinacoteca di Brera [Milan], Gallery of Modern Art [Turin], Accademia [Florence], Villa Panza [Varese], Guggenheim [Venice], and Capodimonte Museum [Naples]. The psychologist Dr. Massimo Cicogna was asked why these particular art museums were the most erotically stimulating and his response was that the ideal art museum is “one that is not too busy, so it allows for the easy observation of the other visitors”).

It would appear that the main difference between Stendahl Syndrome and Ruben Syndrome is that Stendhal Syndrome provokes strong negative and (arguably) passive emotional reactions whereas Rubens Syndrome provokes strong positive and active emotional reactions that some people feel they have to act upon. Following the publication of the study, one of the daily Italian newspapers Il Gazzettino reported:

“Who would ever have said that the corridors of the Accademia Museum in Florence were more erotically charged than the atmosphere in a discotheque? That Botticelli’s Primavera instigates hard-core thoughts and actions, and that the rooms of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice are more stimulating than Viagra?”

According to Professor Willy Pasini (University of Milan, Italy): “Cultural seduction has existed since antiquity. Art has always activated an intensely erotic mechanism – otherwise what sort of art would it be?” Italian sexologist Serenella Salomoni was also interviewed by the Italian press about Rubens Syndrome and claimed it was more commonplace among non-Italian tourists than locals. Her reasoning was based on her claim that “Italians are expressive and less repressed by nature. For a more emotionally contained foreigner, it may take a beautiful painting to provoke strong, sexual feelings”.

Furthermore, according to politician, art critic, and self-confessed lothario Vittorio Sgarbi:

“To visit a museum, it is necessary to be able to love. Eroticism and the love of art, then, are perfectly compatible and interchangeable. Plus, it’s evident that someone who goes to a museum has considerable time available. At the end of the visit, there is a residue of amorous stimulation”.

In an online essay in a 2003 issue of the online magazine Frieze about both Stendhal Syndrome and Rubens’ Syndrome, Melinda Guy argued that both syndromes raise interesting questions about artists’ intentions and their audience’s response, and said: “Perhaps we could use these pathologies to determine cultural value: surely the work that provokes the most Stendhalian (or Rubensian) reactions is truly the most significant?”

As there is no empirical or clinical evidence confirming or denying the existence of Rubens’ Syndrome, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of psychologist Bruce Melnick who in a short article for the Institute for the Psychological Study of the Arts made these observations:

“There is also something in the museum setting, apart from what is actually being shown, that conduces to erotic adventure. The people you see in a museum have at least one interest in common with you…They have come to the museum, like you, for some kind of sensual stimulation…And above and beyond these specifics is the general awareness that museums are places, set apart from the normal world, where we go specifically for purposes of aesthetic contemplation, where, therefore, the usual social rules do not quite apply. This awareness in itself probably fosters erotic fantasy and contact…To oversimplify a bit, we go to museums to look and fantasize. It’s not surprising that some of that should carry over from the pictures on the walls to the people standing in front of them”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

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.

Melnick, B. (2001). PSYART archives: Rubens’ Syndrome. August 4. Located at: http://www.lists.ufl.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0108A&L=PSYART&P=1863

PervScan (2003). Rubens’ Syndrome. August 2. Located at: http://pervscan.com/2003/08/02/rubens-syndrome/

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#

Turner, J. (2001). Museum visitors in Italy list the works most likely to inspire an “erotic adventure”. ARTnews, January 10. Located at: http://www.artnews.com/2001/10/01/pickup-artists/

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

Further reading

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#