Stendhal Syndrome – A beautiful artwork can sometimes be problematic!

Did you ever see something so beautiful that it filled you with an overwhelming emotion? Do artworks give you celestial sensations? If so you are probably suffering from Stendhal syndrome!

Stendhal syndrome or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic condition that occurs when people are exposed to beautiful and phenomenal pieces of artwork. It is commonly characterized by rapid heart rate, hallucinations, a sense of confusion, and fainting.

Marie-Henri Beyle (French; 23 Jan 1783–23 Mar 1842)

The condition is named after Marie-Henri Beyle popularly known as Stendhal.

He was a famous French author during the 19th century. In his book named “Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio” he described his experience of visiting Florence in 1817. Stendhal went to see the Basilica of Santa Croce where Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, and Niccolo Machiavelli are buried.

This principal Franciscan church is a remarkable representation of sublime beauty.

Upon visiting the place, Stendhal was filled with profound emotion and experienced spiritual feelings. In his book, he mentioned that he had palpitations of the heart and walked with the fear of falling.

Stendhal syndrome, Angel says, is a medical term. It’s when a painting, or any form of art, is so beautiful it overwhelms the viewer. It’s a form of shock. When Stendhal toured the Church of Santa Croce in Florence in 1817, he reported almost fainting from joy. People feel rapid heart palpitations. They get dizzy. Looking at great art makes you forget your own name, forget even where you’re at. It can bring on depression and physical exhaustion. Amnesia. Panic. Heart attack. Collapse.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

After Stendhal described his psychological condition, this subject became a hot topic among the psychologists’ community. Hundreds of similar cases were reported shortly. The apparent effects of the syndrome in some individuals were severe enough to acquire medical attention.

The healthcare staff of Florence’s Santa Maria hospital also reported about the tourists who felt dizzy and disoriented after seeing the historic relics of the city. Psychologists debated about the existence of the syndrome for a long time. And in 1979, the condition was officially accepted, recognized, and named as “Stendhal syndrome.”

Although there are no scientific evidence of the condition, being a psychiatric disorder, small evidences have been presented suggesting that the human brain has specific cerebral areas that trigger emotional responses when exposed to beautiful artwork.

My head thrown back, I let my gaze dwell on the ceiling. I underwent the profoundest experience of ecstasy I had ever encountered. I had obtained that supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.” Stendhal

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t include Stendhal syndrome as a recognized mental disorder. This might be because of the lack of any scientific research backing the respective state of mind. However, the most recent case of Stendhal syndrome was reported in 2018. A visitor to the Florence Uffizi Gallery suffered a heart attack while admiring Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Stendhal Syndrome is unquestionably one of the most unusual psychological disorders that have ever been observed. Rather comically, it is also referred to as hyperkulturemia. The basic trigger behind the scene is the beautiful work of art displayed in galleries, churches, or museums. Individuals when exposed to concentrated artwork observe a wide range of symptoms like;

  • Physical and emotional anxiety
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Intense dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confused and disoriented feelings
  • Panic attacks or fainting
  • Momentary amnesia
  • Paranoia

In extreme cases, hallucination and transitory madness can also be expected. Apart from artworks, Stendhal syndrome can also occur when you feel overwhelmed in the presence of a beautiful situation or scenario. In such cases, the effects are usually short-lived and may not require medical intervention.

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