Stendhal syndrome: Can the beauty of art make us ill?

Stendhal syndrome: Can the beauty of art make us ill?

Written by Maria Cohut, Ph.D. on November 3, 2020 — Fact checked by Malgorzata Pachol

What if you were so overwhelmed by the beauty of a work of art that it made you physically and mentally unwell? Some claim that this is a real possibility, and it has a name: the Stendhal syndrome.

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Only about 2 years ago, international press headlines tooted that a man had experienced a heart attack while admiring the famous painting by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus,” which is housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

The implication behind the headlines was not that the event had been a coincidence but, in fact, that the artwork’s staggering beauty had caused the heart attack.

Why would anyone suggest this, and is such a phenomenon even possible?

Although it may seem bizarre, there is a fairly long history behind the notion that art can be so overwhelming as to cause physical illness.

This phenomenon is now referred to as the Stendhal syndrome, a term coined by an Italian psychiatrist in 1989. Anecdotes describing the formidable effect of great artworks on the human psyche, however, date back to at least the 19th century.

In this Curiosities of Medical History feature, we look at how this syndrome is defined, what its alleged symptoms are, what role it plays in cultural history, and, of course, whether or not it is a real medical phenomenon.

‘I walked in fear of falling to the ground’

To find out more about the history and definition of the Stendhal syndrome, Medical News Today spoke to Dr. Fabio Camilletti, an associate professor and reader at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom.

“[T]he one who coined the expression [was a] psychiatrist working at the [Santa Maria Nuova] hospital in Florence, Graziella Magherini, who […] witnessed over the years the recurrence of a certain kind of patients being treated for similar symptoms,” Dr. Camilletti told us.

He added that Dr. Magherini identified this as a unique phenomenon after noticing that “there was a huge amount of people — for an Italian [institution] — being hospitalized after having experienced feelings of unease in the presence of Florence[‘s] monuments, museums, and art galleries, and she believed that a [similar] experience could be found in Stendhal’s writings about Italy, and so she coined the expression ‘the Stendhal syndrome.’”

Dr. Magherini first described this phenomenon in a book she published in 1989, called La sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome).

The name alludes to an episode described by the French writer Stendhal in his travel memoir Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio about the journey that he undertook through Italy in 1817.

In it, Stendhal wrote: “My soul, affected by the very notion of being in Florence, and by the proximity of those great men whose tombs I had just beheld, was already in a state of trance. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, […] I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.”

The sense of awe experienced by being in the proximity of so many impressive historical and art monuments allegedly gave the writer heart palpitations and made him feel faint.

“As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (the same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of nerves); the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”

– Stendhal


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