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April 4, 2007

Is the Stendhal syndrome a fiction?


Richard A. Friedman, M.D., in a provocative piece that appeared in the March 28, 2007 New York Times, suggested just that; his essay follows.

    Shoulder-to-Shoulder Swooning

    We humans take our art very seriously. How else to explain the throngs who will brave the foulest weather just to stand three or more deep to glimpse the latest blockbuster exhibition?

    Not that I’m above the fray. This winter, armed with a friend’s museum pass, I rushed off to take in the Holbein show at Tate Britain in London.

    At first, things looked promising; for about half an hour I actually got to see Holbein’s arresting portraits. Soon, however, I found myself in the museum equivalent of a scrimmage, elbowing my way through the crowd to a corner where I could get a view of some art — instead of the back of some museum visitor’s head.

    This brought a few minutes of one-on-one with Jane Seymour, one of Henry VIII’s luckier wives who escaped the ax. But soon the room was packed; I decided to call it quits and do the only sensible thing I could: study the crowd.

    There was a lot of hushed talk of Holbein’s genius and the horror of Henry VIII’s cruelty. But the prize had to go to a cheeky young boy, probably 10 or 11, who, after listening attentively to his well-educated father explaining that Anne Boleyn had been beheaded, remarked casually, “Well, she probably deserved it.” Apparently, he didn’t like her portrait.

    Clearly, there were some patrons who were more acutely aware of their aching backs and empty stomachs than the paintings and who were busy with lunch plans as they breezed past the art.

    Just when I thought I’d taken in the crowd, I noticed a young woman who was seated on one of the strategically placed couches, looking somewhat flushed. “It’s just too much to take in,” she sighed to her friend. “I’m exhausted.”

    Being a physician — and a psychiatrist at that — I quietly sat down next to her, pretending to gaze at a few more portraits. She had apparently been stricken with an attack of lightheadedness halfway through the exhibition. At first I thought she’d either had a panic attack or had forgotten to eat breakfast when I realized the true nature of her malady: it had to be a case of Stendhal syndrome!

    Named after the French writer who was overwhelmed with feeling at the sight of art during his 1817 trip to Florence, the so-called illness is characterized by symptoms like disorientation, palpitations, faintness and confusion.

    Stendhal himself described “ecstasy” and “celestial sensations” when face to face with the frescoes in Florence’s Church of Santa Croce.

    Fittingly, the syndrome was first named and described by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who has made the diagnosis in more than 100 tourists and visitors to Florence. In one survey, Dr. Magherini found that 56 percent of the patients stricken with Stendhal syndrome had a known prior psychiatric history.

    Just as I suspected: the majority of those with the putative syndrome had mental problems in the first place. This all makes me wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation. After all, is it any surprise that some people feel queasy or even disoriented in the sea of bodies that regularly fill our temples of art? Why blame beauty when it might be nothing more than a reaction in certain psychologically vulnerable people to being packed like sardines in an unfamiliar place?

    To take an extreme example, remember the sculpture of the curly-haired youth that sat unnoticed in the lobby of the French Embassy for nearly a century until, in 1996, several art historians suggested it might actually be a Michelangelo?

    What do you think people would do if they saw the very same sculpture sitting in a museum in Italy, properly labeled, and surrounded by a tightly packed crowd? That’s right. They’d be swooning.


Here's a link to a more in-depth Times article on Stendhal syndrome.

The 1996 movie (top), directed by Dario Argento and starring his daughter Asia, seemed quite interesting so I took a $12.99 Amazon flyer on it.

April 4, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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His explanation does not take into consideration those of us that get stenhal syndrome sitting at home in a totally normal environment. I can be sitting here as happy as ever, but once some mozart goes on or some particular works of art are shown to me I find it difficult to breath and feel very sick and hot. I am otherwise of sound body and mind.

Still, I aint gonna stop listening to mozart just cos of that. :)

Posted by: | Jul 21, 2008 5:11:59 PM

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