Cultural Cocktail Hour

Stendhal Syndrome in Florence

by Leticia Marie Sanchez

Visiting Florence in 1817, the French novelist Stendhal found himself overwhelmed inside Santa Croce. The proximity to Giotto frescoes and Michelangelo’s tomb drove him to a state of delicious delirium.

“I was in a sort of ecstasy…Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul… I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’”

Florentine psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini coined the term Stendhal Syndrome in 1989. Through her work at the Santa Maria Nuova hospital, she has recorded more than 106 cases of patients exhibiting an intense reaction to art with symptoms ranging from rapid heartbeat and dizziness to extreme cases of hallucinations.

Stendhal was not alone. Dr. Iain Bamforth claims that Marcel Proust suffered from the syndrome and Brazilian neurosurgeon Edson Amâncio postulates that Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky exhibited Stendhal Syndrome upon viewing Hans Holbein’s masterpiece, Dead Christ in a Basel museum.

Can Stendhal Syndrome also apply to a reaction towards Living Art?

Florentine Poet Dante Alighieri was overcome when contemplating his muse, Beatrice Portinari, a woman he unbelievably saw only twice in his life. The first as a child, the second time, as an adult when he approached Florence’s Santa Trinita bridge. On their second chance encounter, Beatrice spoke for the first and only time to Dante. Her simple greeting triggered Stendhal-like symptoms, as he recorded in Vita Nuova:

“As this was the first time she had ever spoken to me, I was filled with such joy that, my senses reeling, I had to withdraw from the sight of others.”

Painting Above: Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinità, by Henry Holiday, 1883.

The few-seconds transportive meeting on the bridge bequeathed a lifetime of inspiration for Dante. He poured the sensations that he felt from her brief salutation into a fertile decade of writing, and that moment of intensity on the bridge resulted in forty-two chapters of love poetry, La Vita Nuova.

Perhaps the sensations of Stendhal Syndrome are not that far from those of falling in love.

In any case, Italian scientists have been recently tracking the reactions of tourists to Benozzo Gozzoli’s “Journey of the Magi” in Florence’s Palazzo Medici Riccardi, taking tourists’ blood pressure and heart rate.

For more information on tests for Stendhal Syndrome at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, please see:

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