Romanticism was a cultural movement that prevailed in the 19th century in Europe. It was, apparently, defiance against the strict rationalism of the Enlightenment 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 22 January 1817 he visited the basilica of Santa Croce.
Charmed by the beauty of the place where Michelangelo, 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 Stendhal’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, and 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 tourists, 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 art 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 long-time experience of working as a pathologist, both teaching medical students and running a medical laboratory.