Gazing up at Boticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, a visitor to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence began to feel unusual. His stomach tightened and his heart started racing, and he was rushed to the hospital.
What he experienced was a heart attack, one brought about by the staggering beauty of the artwork.
Heart attack or ‘Art Attack’?
The outrageous beauty emanating from a work of art is said to move people to tears by just looking at it. But can the same beauty that evokes indecipherable emotions in us, also make us ill? Bizarre as it might sound, there is a fairly long history behind the notion that art can be so overwhelming as to cause physical and mental illness. Some claim it to be a real possibility and call it the Stendhal Syndrome.
Stendhal syndrome is said to be a psychosomatic condition that presents as an acute state of exhilarated anxiety that causes people to feel faint, or to collapse, in the presence of art.
The first recorded experience of this phenomenon is when French writer Stendhal witnessed Giotto’s frescoes.
Emotionally, he felt inspired by the sublime beauty, but physically, he experienced heart palpitations and weak, shaky legs. “I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart. The wellspring of life was dried up within me and I walked with constant fear of falling to the ground.”
Also called the Florence Syndrome, this phenomenon is strangely common in Florence, with visitors swooning and feeling overwhelmed by the city’s abundance of great art. Some report experiencing rapid heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, disorientation, fainting, and confusion while looking at an artwork that they deeply connect with.
But why Florence, you ask?
Mostly because it has the most Renaissance art, which is superficially beautiful and recognizable but often contains darker, disturbing details. In fact, there also exists a Paris syndrome and Jerusalem syndrome that are basically along similar lines.
While the syndrome doesn’t currently appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM, it is still documented in medical journals by psychiatrists who advise people to get enough rest in between viewings of powerful masterpieces.x
Cases of Stendhal Syndrome have and can occur anytime we’re exposed to an awe-inspiring artwork that knocks the breath out of you, be it gazing at the Taj Mahal or standing inside the Notre Dame.
So maybe it’s not the beauty of the art that makes us ill, rather the art demanding to be felt.
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