Stendhal Syndrome

Tomb of Galileo Galilei — Basilica Santa Croce, Florence
The tomb of Galileo Galilei
by Giovanni Battista Foggini
Basilica Santa Croce, Florence.
Henri-Marie Beyle, better known by his pen name, Stendhal, is the author of several famous novels, among which Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) and La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma). He was also a lover of arts. In 1817,  aged 33, he had a long trip in Italy. He related afterwards, in his book "Rome, Naples et Florence", that he was quickly overwhelmed by the rich legacy of art and history of the country.

The day he visited the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, a monument that houses the tombs of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo, and with famous frescoes by Giotto on the ceilings, he was overcome with emotion:

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, [...] I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations. [...] I had palpitations of the heart [...] Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

Stendhal wrote then the first description of what is now called Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic phenomenon that may include dizziness, increased heart rate and palpitations, chest pain, sometimes loss of self-conscience, confusion or even hallucinations. Some people will get depressed, others will go from exaltation and feeling of omnipotence to panic attacks and fear of death.

About ten cases of the Stendhal syndrome are reported every year in Italy, among people who have gazed at works such as the David by Michelangelo or The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. It is not a specific 'Italian art disease' though: it can occur whenever people who have been eagerly expecting an emotion for a long time finally feel it, in the deepest way. It can happen in front of a special place, when you gaze at a painting or a landscape, or even when you look at the face of the beloved one, the day you have succeeded at last to have a date with her/him...  Look out then!

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