Stendhal Syndrome

This week is a little off.  I’ve been much busier than normal (I got a job, yay!), and haven’t been able to research as much as I’d like.  Oddly, this means I’m doing a new topic every week, which winds up being more research ultimately since it’s more topics, but each entry needs less information so…  This week is also weird because it’s not, strictly speaking, a history topic.  When listening to Sawbones (if you haven’t listened to this podcast go do it right now), Stendhal Syndrome came up in one of their episodes – I think it was the fainting episode, given what it is, but I’m not positive on that.  It sounded weird and interesting, so I thought why not?  Also, my husband has wanted to read The Red and the Black by Stendhal for a while now so I’d heard of the guy before.

StendhalBriefly on Stendhal himself.  He was born Marie-Henri Beyle on January 23, 1783 in Grenoble and died March 23, 1842 in Paris.  The Red and the Black is his most well-known novel, but he wrote six novels, two biographies, a memoir, some nonfiction, and a few novellas.  Stendhal’s works were written in a realistic style at a time when Romanticism was popular.  He used a number of different pseudonyms before settling on Stendhal.  Stendal was a town in Germany where he stayed near once and where he fell in love; he added the ‘h’ to make the pronunciation clearer.

In 1817, Stendhal travelled to Italy and was just in awe of Florence.  In his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, he wrote “As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (that same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of the nerves); the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground” (1).  This description is what would lead to the condition known as Stendhal Syndrome.

First off, Stendhal Syndrome is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Apparently it’s pretty much just a European thing, heh.  Stendhal Syndrome – also known as Florence Syndrome, hyperkulturemia, and tourist syndrome – is described as “A psychosomatic response – tachycardia, vertigo, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations – when the ‘victim’ is exposed to particularly beautiful, or large amounts of, art in a single place – e.g. Florence (Italy), which has a high concentration of classic works; the response can also occur when a person is overwhelmed by breathtaking natural beauty” (2).  Stendhal Syndrome can also cause nausea, paranoia, and even temporary psychosis.  It’s caused by concentrated art, “immense beauty (such as something in the natural world like a beautiful sunset)” (3), and “most commonly occurs in tourists who have created stress symptoms by attempting to see and do too much” (4).

The name Stendhal Syndrome was coined in 1979 by the Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini who, at the time, was the chief of psychiatry at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence (5).  She noticed that an awful lot of people visiting Florence were coming down with panic attacks or temporary madness, but not really requiring any medical help.  Dr. Magherini remembered having read Stendhal’s account and coined the condition after him.

In 1989, Dr. Magherini published La Sindroma di Stendhal, in which she documented 106 cases at her hospital in Florence between ’77 and ’86.  She broke these cases down into three different types.  Type 1 had 70 patients who had psychotic symptoms; type 2 had 31 patients with affective symptoms; type 3 had 5 patients with panic attacks (6).  Thirty-one percent of the people with type 1 had prior psychiatric history, and over half of the patients in type 2 had.  That was pretty much it; not much else has been written on the condition in academic literature.

In 2005 one article claimed there was evidence that Dostoevsky suffered from this due to a description he gave of what happened when he viewed Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ.  In 2010 another claimed that Proust, Freud, and Jung also had it, based on descriptions they gave of similar occurrences.  Currently though, a team in Italy is trying to study tourists’ reactions in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.  If people do suffer from Stendhal Syndrome, Dr. Magherini has a clinic with beds available for people to rest and recover.

It seems like Stendhal Syndrome is caused when people are already stressed about travel and/or have been looking forward to seeing a particular thing for a long time.  Basically, you’re just extremely overwhelmed or overcome by the beauty of what they’re seeing.  It’s not actually the place, but our expectations or exhaustion before getting to the place.  It’s most common in Italy, but it seems that Italians are immune, presumably because they live among these things.  The Japanese don’t get it either, due to their “hit-and-run, highly regimented tourism” (7).

So, how can you prevent getting Stendhal Syndrome?  Experts advise trying not to do too much at once (again, especially in Italy) and balancing your time between art and other activities (8).  Beware though, there are other Syndromes you could still get.  There’s: Paris Syndrome, from taking in too much culture at once; Jerusalem Syndrome, from taking in too much religion/religious sites at once; and Rubens Syndrome “for erotically charged activity to break out after, or even during, viewings of Old Masters, particularly those depicting a figurative romp” (9).  The Rubens one has actually been studied too; of the 2000 people that were observed or talked to, 20% had “begun ‘an erotic adventure’ in a museum” (10) (for someone who works in museums… Um… Please don’t…).

So that’s the weird case (and so a weird entry today) of Stendhal Syndrome.  I think it’s really neat but weird and crazy and I’m curious what other weird medical things there are like this!  When you look at the Wikipedia page for Stendhal Syndrome it also suggests Lisztomania, Paris Syndrome, and Jerusalem Syndrome; Lisztomania was just done on Stuff You Missed in History Class, but I may have to look at the other two a bit more, or see what the Liszt page might tell me to look at.  Crazy stuff!

1 – Stendhal Syndrome.

2 – Stendhal Syndrome, The Free Dictionary.

3, 5, 6 – Griffiths, Mark D., Ph.D., “Having an Art Attack: A brief look at Stendhal Syndrome,” Psychology Today, Mar 10, 2014.

4, 8 – “What is Stendhal Syndrome?,” wiseGEEK.

7, 9, 10 – Guy, Melinda, “The Shock of the Old”, frieze, Issue 72, January-February 2003.


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