Picture this; It is a nice summer day; the sun shines bright, and a light breeze hits your face while you walk through the streets of Florence. You head towards the art gallery that houses work by some of the world’s most renowned artists. You walk through the hallway in awe, staring at the divine pieces till one gorgeous piece catches your eye. You can’t stop yourself from admiring the sheer brilliance and beauty of the artwork. Suddenly, confusion sets in, your heart begins to race, you start feeling dizzy, and before you know, everything goes blank. You find yourself lying on the floor unconscious, and the last thing you remember was admiring a mesmerizing piece of art.
Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty that it makes you physically and mentally unwell? However, you may have found a particular object attractive or beautiful, not to the extent of extreme physical responses. In fact, such a condition does exist and is known as Stendhal Syndrome. This is a psychosomatic condition in which an individual, when exposed to objects, artwork. The phenomena of “great beauty” suffers from increased heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, and sometimes even causing a complete or partial loss of consciousness. It is originated in Florence. It is also known as Florence Syndrome, where doctors at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital observed tourists with similar symptoms after roaming the city adorned with historical relics, statues, and art galleries. These symptoms include an altered perception of colours and sounds, increased anxiety and guilt, depressive anxiety, and physiological symptoms such as chest pain. Another common symptom felt by tourists was a sense of ‘euphoria’ or omnipotence after witnessing constructed beauty such as art.
Can aesthetics indeed cause fatigue to the level of physical and mental sickness? There exists an ongoing debate among psychologists on whether the condition exists or not. However, its effects are significant enough to demand medical attention. While causes remain unknown, one of the potential reasons behind the Stendhal Syndrome is the overactivation of specific brain areas to those who may be predisposed to mental health problems. Evidence also indicates that some cerebral regions such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex are involved in emotional responses stimulated during exposure to art. Stendhal Syndrome has not been listed under American Psychiatric Association’s DSM. However, psychiatrists have documented the syndrome in medical journals and advised tourists to get enough rest in between the viewings of Italy’s greatest masterpieces.
In 2018, a tourist, while admiring “The Birth of Venus”, a famous painting by artist Sandro Botticelli housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, reportedly suffered a heart attack. This noteworthy incident is the latest apparent case of Stendhal Syndrome (Palacios-Sánchez et al., 2018). Another such case study dated back in 2009 described a 72-year-old fine-art graduate who presented concerns regarding insomnia. The subject visited his dream destination in Florence, standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge experienced a panic attack (Palacios-Sánchez et al., 2018). Despite a history of anecdotes dated back to the 19th century, there is a lack of targeted treatment for Stendhal Syndrome. Patients are treated based on symptoms. Although it may sound bizarre, there is evidence of this strange ‘aesthetic sickness’ to the extraordinary power and incredible beauty of Renaissance Art.
Can you overdose on art? Sheer beauty can indeed cause one harm. However, it hasn’t stopped hundreds of people from reacting and viewing great skill in the hope of passion and spiritual elevation. As for most human ailments, the risk factors include age, proneness to anxiety, and stress. Therefore, for travellers to need to be well-rested, protected from the sun, and remaining adequately hydrated and fed at all times, it is essential.
The Stendhal Syndrome is a pure manifestation of the most profound spaces of the human mind, which forms a link between emotion and senses. The traveller observes excellent works of art, causing a detachment from their familiar environment, leading to symptoms. Patients are overwhelmed by sheer beauty leading to the inability to tolerate such a passionate and robust connection between art and man.
Quoting Stendhal himself: “Beauty is no other thing than a promise of happiness” (Palacios-Sánchez et al., 2018).
More than a psychiatric or psychological phenomenon, the Stendhal Syndrome makes us revaluate our relationship with the world. It stands as a fusion of art and libido, a symbol of pain caused by beauty. It reminds us of the powerful and unpredictable nature of the human mind.
Palacios-Sánchez, L., Botero-Meneses, J. S., Pachón, R. P., Hernández, L. B., Triana-Melo, J. del, & Ramírez-Rodríguez, S. (2018). Stendhal syndrome: A clinical and historical overview. Arquivos De Neuro-Psiquiatria, 76(2), 120–123. https://doi.org/10.1590/0004-282x20170189