When tourists feel strange: 15 years after the Stendhal Syndrome

Joseph E. Calderone
July 7, 2005

When Inge was struck by Brunelleschi’s sculpted wooden “Crucifix” and Nardo di Cione’s “Last Judgement” in the Strozzi Chapel, and by the magnificently frescoed Spanish Chapel where everything is in the feminine, she saw those raised fingers in the fresco accusing her.  “It’s my fault my mother diedBut, am I dreaming?”  She returned to her pensione with a stinging sense of alarm, a sense that she was an outsider in this place.  “What am I doing here?” she wondered.  Inge felt as though she had disturbed the delicate order of things.  Everyone was beginning to talk about her in many different languages.  “I had caused a big scandal,” she said, “it seemed they were writing about me in newspapers, they were talking about me on the radio, and they were following me on the streets.”

 

Perhaps you recall the scene from E.M Forster’s travel novel, A Room with a View, when Lucy is caught in Piazza Santa Croce on a hot and humid afternoon without her Baedeker’s guidebook. Although she admires the majesty and aesthetic beauty of the church Lucy feels lost without her guidebook and lacks the confidence to view the art in its context.  Later in the novel, she is in Piazza della Signoria and notices two Italian men arguing.  Then she witnesses the savagery of one of the men being stabbed, blood trickling from between his lips. In one moment she is witness to conflicting imagery of beauty and horror, eros and thanatos. This condition of sundromos, or ‘running together’ of disparate emotions evokes in Lucy an inexplicable hysteria and psychosomatic reaction.  She faints unexpectedly only to be revived by George, an unrefined man of whom she dismisses then later falls in love.   Much has changed since the days of innocent Victorian women swooning in piazzas under heavy layers of petticoat, but today, at the very least, we have some hard science to explain these phenomena.  

 

Although these true and fictional stories seem to have been pulled directly from a ‘News of the Weird’ column, they share an element in common: they are all symptoms of a psychiatric condition typical to Florence called Stendhal Syndrome.  Any tourist who becomes struck by this illness is in the great majority of cases referred to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova’s first aid station.  Stendhal Syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, and even hallucinations when the individual is exposed to an overdose of beautiful art, paintings, and artistic masterpieces. It shares common characteristics with other syndromes like the Stockholm and Jerusalem syndromes.

 

Like other syndromes it is a complexity of symptoms leading to an abnormal state of mind and body.  If you happen to be struck by this illness, you will probably get a house-call or an emergency visit from my aunt, Graziella Magherini, the psychiatrist and brains behind the theory.  Over a ten-year period, from 1977 to 1986, she observed a correlation between certain psychiatric disorders and travelling combined with the viewing of artwork that manifested in abnormal behaviour.  It has been 15 years since her discoveries were published in a book entitled La Sindrome di Stendahl (1990).  The study won Dr. Magherini global critical acclaim.  Cult filmmaker Dario Argento directed a horror movie by the same name.  As recent as 2003, Tony Award-winning playwright, Terrence McNally, directed a two-act play starring Isabella Rosellini, and The New York Times Magazine’s “Fall Fashion Issue” dedicated an article to her theory.  The Stendhal Syndrome has gotten a lot of mileage.  But why is there still such a fuss over these findings?  We asked Dr. Graziella Magherini the reasons behind the timelessness of her theory.

 

Is there a timeless quality about your findings that continues to catch people’s interest?

 

The Stendhal Syndrome is current and constantly renews itself.  As long as there are people visiting museums and reflecting on artwork the theory will always be acknowledged: even in its more ‘physiological’ forms. That is, if a tourist encounters a work of art with a receptive soul, desiring to ‘understand,’ the work will prove to be a moment of uncertainty and of suffering that becomes an “obligatory” passage until the tested emotion transforms itself into an aesthetic and conscious pleasure.  The clinical cases that I have discovered and studied are only the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon much more diffuse that forms the basis of the “aesthetic” experience.

 

How did you feel about Dario Argento’s treatment of the subject matter?  Did you think it was exploitative?

 

Regarding Dario Argento’s film, I contributed to the first part, the part of the film that dealt with the spontaneous emergence of the psychic episode of suffering in the young female police officer in front of the paintings.  The theory was realized very well.  The second half of the film, on the other hand, is uniquely Dario Argento’s.  Film is, after all, a collaborative process.

 

A few years ago someone attacked the David with a hammer? Was this part of the syndrome?

 

Yes.  Even the need to disfigure art is a part of this syndrome.

 

Why are people fascinated by mental illness?

 

People are fascinated by mental illness because unbeknownst to them mental illness touches then, unconsciously, the insane part of every sane person.

 

Does the Syndrome have something to do with the magic of Florence?

 

Florence is certainly a city capable of unchaining the syndrome.  In a small territory there is such a large concentration of history, culture, and artistic beauty.  It’s an overdose.  Under these circumstances the past re-emerges and imposes itself on the mind.  Visits to a city like Florence, full of history and art, touch everyone’s personal lives.

 

Is it time to re-release the book?  In English this time?

 

Yes.  Although it has been translated in many languages, I would be very happy to see it in English.

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