Stendhal Syndrome

October 25, 2018

If you’re an art lover who gets easily overwhelmed by a beautiful work of art or get goose bumps when you walk into a museum, no worries! This is actually completely normal. However, there are certain people who can show signs of Stendhal syndrome in these types of situations. This syndrome has other names such as Florence syndrome, traveler’s stress, or museum disease.

This strange syndrome manifests itself when we observe great works of art. The story of its discovery is just as casual as it is curious, similar to the phenomenon itself. Read on to learn more.

Its origin: Florence’s art

In 1817, Henri-Marie Belle, a famous and prestigious French writer, was touring Italy. He was looking for information for his next book. Guess this author’s pseudonym! It’s Stendhal!

During his visit to Florence, he toured every corner of the city. He was amazed by the art that filled every inch of the streets. He saw museums, churches, domes, landscapes, roofs, facades, and frescoes. Belle wanted to take it all in.

When he visited the Basilica of the Holy Cross, his curiosity, excitement, and enthusiasm unleashed a series of physical symptoms. He started to sweat and feel a deep sense of anguish. His heart rate sped up and he began to feel vertigo. He had to sit down so he could calm down and reflect on what had happened.

The city of Florence.

As he later discussed in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, his own experiences gave him a lot of information on psychology and medicine. He gathered a great deal of valuable information which he discussed in the following quote:

“I had reached that level of emotion in which the fine arts cause celestial sensations and passionate feelings. Leaving Santa Croce, my heart was beating. Life was exhausted in me. I was afraid to fall.”

His important and detailed description of the phenomenon was the reason for the syndrome’s name. It honors the way Stendhal discovered this syndrome’s symptomatology!

Stendhal syndrome’s symptoms

It wasn’t until a century later when people started to consider it a syndrome. In 1979, Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini investigated and studied one hundred similar cases of tourists in Florence. He observed that he could summarize the set of symptoms as a beautiful metaphor: a kind of “artistic embarrassment”.

Stendhal syndrome’s symptomatology includes tachycardia, sweating, palpitations, hot flashes, terror, emotional tension, and exhaustion. In more serious cases, it can cause dizziness that can result in fainting or even depression.

Some consider Stendhal syndrome to be a psychosomatic disease because of the bi-directional relationship that exists between the mind and body. In this case, emotional arousal causes the physical symptoms we described above.

Others classify the syndrome as a psychic phenomenon. Therefore, researchers attribute its origin to when people observe works of great beauty in a short period of time. Thus, Stendhal Syndrome is like a kind of artistic shock.

Can people really suffer from this syndrome?

The symptoms that characterize this syndrome can affect anybody. We can all feel exhausted or dizzy, or even our heart rate can increase at any moment. These symptoms don’t necessarily have to coincide with admiring a great work of art. For these reasons, it’s a very unusual syndrome.

This syndrome usually manifests in tourists who love art and are generally there to admire its beauty. Generally, they start to feel symptoms in places that “take their breath away” or for some reason have a very intense emotional meaning to them.

Debate: Myth or reality

Throughout the last decades, Stendhal syndrome has become a reference of reaction to the way individuals view a work of art. This happens particularly when the art is beautiful or the viewer has access to a lot of art in one place. But, like everything else, the syndrome isn’t free from controversy.

There’s no doubt that, when we listen to a song, whatever memories we associate with that song come to mind. Sometimes we can’t help but feel excited. When we go to a play, we can sometimes feel goose bumps. Something about art moves us. Art is emotion.

Despite the fact that clinical psychologists recognize Stendhal syndrome, others raise questions and wonder if it’s just a simple myth. The latter believe that Stendhal syndrome is a fantasy that we make up, that it only exists in our minds. In addition, the most skeptical people believe that the visitors’ unconscious plays tricks on them. They say that the fact that they may be tired or jet-lagged from traveling may be the real reasons for these symptoms.

During recent years, tourism has increased a great deal in Italy. Art has become more popular and Stendhal syndrome cases have tripled in Florence’s hospitals. This is why it’s also known as Florence syndrome.

A woman seeing art representing Stendhal syndrome.

Economic motivation?

Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance. It’s still one of the most beautiful cities in the world and has the greatest artistic history. Therefore, the scientific community is concerned about the possible economic interest that may be behind this phenomenon. They say that the city’s beautiful reputation may be used to attract more visitors and increase revenue.

What do you think? Is it just a way to capture new tourists‘ attention? Or can appreciating art for short periods of time actually cause physical symptoms?