There is a new program here at MPOW called MindFuel. Various and sundry get up and talk for 5-10 minutes on a topic that’s interesting and a little off the beaten path. I was the speaker this morning, and here’s my talk:
There is an unusual psychological disorder called Stendahl Syndrome.
When exposed to concentrated works of art, affected individuals experience a wide range of symptoms including physical and emotional anxiety, 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 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 better known by his penname ‘Stendhal’ – who at the age of 34 years (in 1817) described in detail* his negative experiences of viewing the Florentine art of the Italian Renaissance – and hence it’s alternative name as Florence Syndrome.
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’. 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.
I can’t say that I was affected by panic attacks or bouts of madness, but I was certainly affected by the incredible art in Florence. We had the privilege of spending a week in Tuscany last month, and made visits to Florence and its amazing art three times during the course of the week. We saw the astonishing Duomo – the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – and its related Baptistery. In the earlier days of the Catholic Church, you weren’t allowed to enter the cathedral if you hadn’t been baptized. The building was for the express purpose of baptism, and once you were baptized, you left through a magnificent pair of doors, directly facing the doors of the cathedral. The sheer beauty of the ceiling of the baptistery brought my friend and me to tears.
The art within the Duomo was awe-inspiring. The dome itself is a fresco of the Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari, though it paled in comparison to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which we had seen the week before. The building is filled with works of art: marble statues and paintings by Renaissance artists like Donatello – who designed one of the cathedral’s 44 stained glass windows.
Another day we visited the Uffizi Gallery. You know those amazing works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli? They’re at the Uffizi. The Birth of Venus? There. You begin to get the sense of the power and influence of the de Medici family when you tour these museums.
Finally, we visited the Accademia Gallery, which most famously claims arguably the most beautiful piece of sculpture ever released from a piece of marble, Michelangelo’s David. It truly is astonishing, and breathtaking in its detail. Perhaps the most haunting of the pieces are four sculptures by Michelangelo called The Prisoners. These are sculpted in such a way as to imply that the marble itself is holding the figures captive, and the figures are trying to break free of the marble. They’re incredible. In addition to the magnificent sculpture, the gallery houses numerous paintings once owned by the Medici family, now donated for all to enjoy.
Before we visited Tuscany we toured a few days in Rome, visiting the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, which offered their own transcendent beauty. The Sistine Chapel, again, brought my friend and me to tears. St. Peter’s was incredible, with pieces of art all about the place – including the magnificent Pieta, also by Michelangelo. (As an aside, I rather prefer the Pieta to David.) The colosseum and Palatine Hill the next day brought the startling realization that two millennia ago there were people who built entertainment venues that are still partially standing. Here, we’re amazed if a house is over 100 years old. It’s a different world, and it’s a humbling experience.
Tuscany was beautiful, the hillside city of Assisi (as in St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals) was charming and lovely, and the whole visit was a balm for the soul.
Your challenge, dear listener, is to make a trip of your own. Invite the possibility of Stendhal Syndrome into your life. Visit a place that’s older than our country, with streets not as wide as the commons, with architecture unlike any other, with art on virtually every corner. Soak in the atmosphere, the language, and the amazing food. (And, let’s be honest, the wine. We did stay in the Chianti region at a winery, after all.)
*(in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio)