You might have heard of the Stendhal Syndrome, or the Florence Syndrome. You may have even experienced a mild case of it yourself.
It is the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much art: too many beautiful paintings, sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, architectural wonders. It is a particular physical and mental response to art that was first named in Florence, the epicenter of Renaissance art and creation.
Stendhal Syndrome is an overwhelmed response to artistic beauty that can cause rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, and confusion. In extreme cases, one may even experience hallucinations. It is a recognized psychosomatic occurrence that was first named in 1989 but that was first described in Florence in the early 1800s.
Stendhal is the pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle, the 19th century French writer, author of The Red and the Black. On a trip to Florence in 1817 he reported having an acute physical response to the art and beauty around him. In writings on his travels, he described some of what would later manifest itself with some regularity in Florence’s museums and even, on occasion, in its medical centers.
Though it is not entirely unique to Florence, it is more commonly reported here than in other art-rich cities, and it is almost unique to visitors.
Some of the syndrome is explained as a sort of star-struck awe we feel to be in the actual presence of iconic works of art we know from countless images in textbooks and media; we are dumbstruck to be standing in front of the “actual” David created by Michelangelo, or Boticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Now string together room after room of such experiences in the Uffizi, and the Bargello down the street, the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Medici tombs, the Fra Angelico frescoes in San Marco, all so near one another you can view them in a single day—plus the Duomo, Orsanmichele, and other architecture and outdoor sculptures, and… You get the picture.
Another explanation is that there is something so humbling about the genius and work of other humans (clearly at its zenith in Florence), that it makes our hearts race and our minds reel with the possibilities and potential. It can produce manic excitement. Or it can stir anxiety in us personally, an acute feeling of humility before greatness and beauty. There’s more to it than simple sensory overload.
Have you ever experienced Stendhal Syndrome? If so, where were you, and what did it feel like?
Join us for virtual tours of Florence and the Uffizi on our Virtual Weekend in Tuscany. You can swoon over art from the safety and comfort of your own couch, at least until we are able to travel to Europe again. See you online!