The Stendhal Syndrome is a psychiatric disorder that occurs when someone is helplessly overwhelmed by the beauty of art. In search of the truth behind this extraordinary phenomenon, the artist, publicist and poet Maria Barnas interviewed the greatest specialist in this field: the famous Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini.
‘I was ecstatic with the idea that I was in Florence, close to the masters whose tombs I had seen. Deep in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I reached the emotional point where we experience heavenly sensations. When I left Santa Croce, I had heart palpitations. The life flowed out of me and I was afraid I would fall.’ These words were written in 1817 by the young French writer Stendhal during a visit to Florence.
When I visited the same church, I saw an American tourist faint beneath the Giotto ceiling paintings. His wife complained that they had saved up for years, so her husband could see the work of Giotto with his own eyes. Indignant, she went on, ‘And now that we are finally here, he collapses!’ For me, it is an exciting idea that art has the power to cause people to be seriously disoriented for significant lengths of time, perhaps because that reality seems so far removed from me. I cannot remember ever becoming directly emotional or having had a physical reaction to looking at art. Could I be missing an important aspect of art?
During a stay in Rome, where I was working in a studio of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, I came across the work of the Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini. In the 1980s, she named the syndrome – which she had observed in several people – after Stendhal, the first to have described the experience. The Stendhal Syndrome can cause rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, fainting, delusions and even psychoses. To learn how people could be so overcome by the experience of art that it leaves them with a psychiatric disorder, I decided to speak with Dr. Magherini.
It was not easy to get an appointment with her. Only when I implied that I was writing about the newly published English translation of her book, La Sindrome di Stendhal (1989), was her assistant willing to give me a half hour of Dr. Magherini’s time, in order to ask my questions.
A stylish, older woman, Dr. Magherini led me into her consultation room. She gestured me to the seat across from her. Giving answers often before I had finished formulating my questions, she spoke in long, resolute sentences. It was soon obvious that for the duration of this interview, it would be utterly useless to question the verity of her words.
‘The Stendhal Syndrome is a normal aspect of artistic-aesthetic awareness. I have treated 106 cases in the last 10 years. They are very important, because they represent the tip of the iceberg in a process that is in fact very common, striking anyone who goes to see a work of art with an open mind and a desire to feel emotions. I feel it is important to understand the factors that influence us and, indeed, can awaken these reactions in anyone who visits an exhibition or a work of art. Particularly when things go wrong, you can learn a lot.’
Can you tell me something about the kinds of patients you treat?
‘Kamil, whose last name I won’t mention, is the most memorable. We still keep in touch occasionally. He was from Prague, a student at the art academy. He had spent many days in Florence and each day, the emotions he experienced accumulated, seeing as he was very sensitive. He had visited Santa Croce, the Duomo and, of course, the Uffizi. On one of his last days in Florence, he visited the Chiesa del Carmine, with the Masaccio frescoes. He began to feel uncomfortable, was afraid he would faint. He felt like he was suffocating. He had to leave the church and lay down on the church steps. He was able to collect himself only when he managed to imagine himself at home, in his bed in Prague.
All these new emotions had made him lose his sense of identity. It was as if he were falling apart. When he came to me, he was no longer able to speak. It took months of careful therapy before he was again able to formulate his first new sentences. Stendhal had described a similar experience. When he became unwell at the Sibile di Volterrano, he too had to get away from the church. He went to Piazza Santa Croce and lay down on a bench. He managed to recover when he got a book of poems by Ugo Foscolo from his pocket and read what the poet had written about his own emotions at the church of Santa Croce.’
What is the mental process that underlies this kind of experience?
‘There is a recently defined law governing the transformation of strong, uncontrollable emotion into symbols, or thought. When people are able to perform these transformations, they feel better, they can ‘free’ themselves. Psychoanalysts call this ‘mentalization’. To have a thought, it is necessary to begin from an emotion. Through this transformation in the mind, a strong emotion is turned into a symbol. Symbols are the building blocks of thought. Symbols are placed together, a thought is formed and thinking begins. This is what children do. A child’s emotional experiences are transformed, and he is able to think and speak. We have new thoughts all through life and can always make these transformations of feelings and strong perceptions. Affection, love and hate are transformed into symbols. A collection of symbols becomes a thought and a collection of thoughts can lead to reasoning, ultimately to philosophy and mathematics. However there is a hidden danger in this process, which should be a continuum. Sometimes emotions do not complete this transformation to surface as an idea, a thought. I have found from working with my patients that art can play a key role in this. A work of art may be able to pick up these past emotions and become their symbolic container.’
How can the serene art of the Renaissance be a catalyst for the Stendhal Syndrome?
‘Renaissance art is anything but serene. It just seems that way, with its beautiful forms. Florentine and Italian Renaissance art is incredible. Beneath these splendid forms are extremely powerful nuclei of communication, which can cause conflicts and disturbances in the psyche of the sensitive observer. This is why Renaissance art is so striking. It is often a detail that does it, as in Botticelli’s Spring or The Birth of Venus. Have you noticed the wind, the motion of the sea? These details allow you to understand how many disturbing elements underlie this beautiful form.
Can contemporary art have the same effect?
‘An important aspect of the degree to which people can become confused by looking at art is a feeling of being completely overwhelmed. The Stendhal Syndrome occurs most frequently in Florence, because we have the greatest concentration of Renaissance art in the world. People seldom see just a single work, but overload themselves with hundreds of masterpieces in a short period. Renaissance art appeals to everyone, even those who know little about it. This is very different for modern, conceptual art. There are very few people who understand the message, because they do not know the code. Once they understand the code, a disturbance could theoretically occur and the message might be capable of striking something deep in the observer, but I have not yet seen it happen.’
How is it that some people feel nothing at all when they look at a work of art that they nonetheless find very impressive?
Dr. Magherini looked at me in silence. Should I say something else? I looked around me, examining the walls for something to add to my question. Then a slight smile crossed her face. ‘If you need help, you can make an appointment with my assistant. But there is a long waiting list. There may be a place available next year.’