Baring all

A symptom of Stendhal syndrome?

Helen Farrell
February 27, 2014 - 10:00

‘I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves.” Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’

Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.

 

Recently, a 25-year-old Spanish tourist bared all before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Nervous and dazed, the young man removed his jacket, then his shirt until he was fully naked in front of the famous work of art. In laboured Italian, the Spaniard whispered, ‘This is poetry, this is poetry,’ as his red-stained hands reached into a bag and threw pink rose petals into the air. The surprised oohing of the other visitors in the Botticelli rooms quickly spread to nearby guards, who stopped the young man, covering him with a cloth, and asked him to redress before the police arrived and arrested him for indecent exposure.

 

Naked Spanierd in the Uffizi. Photo Susanna Mantovani Naked Spanierd in the Uffizi. Photo Susanna Mantovani

 

Could this incident be another one in a long line of manifestations of the so-called Stendhal syndrome? Or was it a studied and rehearsed performance?

 

Named after the 19th-century French writer Stendhal, Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini coined the term in the 1970s and it is now a commonly acknowledged psychosomatic illness that affects visitors when faced with exceptional and intense visions of beauty. Also referred to as hyperkulturemia or Florence syndrome, the symptoms usually include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations. In 1991, Piero Cannata took a hammer to Michelangelo’s David, saying he had been ordered to do so by a 16th-century Venetian painter’s model. Upon seeing a version of The Last Supper, a Scandinavian visitor to Florence, Inge, experienced palpitations and saw flashes of lights. In between flashes she saw herself in the painting as one of the women carrying a fruit basket to the table of Jesus.

 

Magherini’s research revealed that more than half of the people affected by these symptoms caused by great works of art were European or Japanese; Italians are unaffected due to their natural affinity and closeness to such beauty.

 

Commissioned by the Medici family and painted between 1482 and 1485, this is the first time that the Birth of Venus, also nude in all her glory, has ‘inspired’ such a response from a viewer.

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