Romanticism was a cultural movement, which prevailed in the 19th century in Europe. It was apparently a defiance against the strict rationalism of the Enlightenment era and believed in the subjective experiences of humans based on imaginations and emotions.
It advocated the irrational and spontaneous nature of human experience which was viewed as transcendental to the mechanical and materialistic worldview of the 18th century. French poet Charles Baudelaire once said: ‘Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.’
The French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, with the pseudonym of Stendhal, did not belong completely to Romanticism, but in nature he was Romantic. Although he was French, he had a passion for Italy. On 22nd January 1817 he visited the basilica of Santa Croce.
Charmed by the beauty of the place where Michelangelo and Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei were buried and mesmerised by the grace of the frescoes and paintings by Giotto and Baldassare Franceschini, Stendhal had a remarkable, breathtaking and somewhat unusual experience.
He wrote: ‘I had reached that point of emotion that meets the heavenly sensations given by the fine arts and passionate feelings. Leaving Santa Croce, I had an irregular heartbeat, life was ebbing out of me, I walked with the fear of falling.’ These were not just romantic exaggerations. He really felt that way.
In 1979, Dr Graziella Magherini an Italian psychiatrist working at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, who had seen some patients with this collection of symptoms named it the the Stedhal’s syndrome. Later, she reported 106 cases, all non-Italian tourists, brought to the hospital while sightseeing in Florence.
It was as if the museums and galleries had haunted them. Their symptoms included palpitation, chest pain, sweating, anxiety, disorientation, extreme exhaustion, depersonalisation an even hallucination. Some of the victims even tried to destroy the art pieces to get rid of their symptoms. The symptoms usually appeared suddenly and could last from two to eight days.
Dr Magherini distinguished three types of presentation: in 66% of patients the dominant presentations were some kind of thought disorder, including guilt and persecutory ideas along with alterations of perception. Therefore, this group had mostly a psychotic presentation. In 29% the principal complaints were mood disorders; either depression with anxiety and feelings of inferiority or an elated mood with euphoria and feelings of omnipotence. Around 5% presented with panic attacks and somatic symptoms like chest pain, palpitation, dizziness and digestive discomfort.
In a comparison between the affected and non-affected tourist, Dr Magherini found that victims were usually older and less well educated compared to other tourists. The relative number of singles, students and unemployed people were higher among patients.
The mechanism of this strange encounter with art is not clear. It is apparent that travel fatigue, along with some background issues, like living alone, can be risk factors. Many of the first 106 patients reported by Magherini had prior psychiatric problems. For some patients, the works of art may have had some hidden, symbolic meanings and still, for others it might have been just a sense of being overwhelmed by the glory and grace of the works of art.
It is amazing how arts may talk to us in such secret and mysterious manners. After all, isn’t an aesthetic experience always a sway between joy and apprehension? Rainer Maria Rilke was right when he wrote : ‘Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.’
Saba Hoda is a physician with a longtime experience of working as a pathologist, both teaching medical students and running a medical laboratory.
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