Life Health & Wellbeing

Monday 23 September 2019

Art attack: Overcome by beauty in Florence

Mind matters...

Uffizi Gallery - Michaelangelo's David
Uffizi Gallery - Michaelangelo's David

Patrica Casey

In the 18th and 19th centuries rich gentlemen, and sometimes ladies, travelled to the great cultural cities of Europe. Paris, Rome, Florence and Vienna were among the favourites. These grand tours often lasted for several years. The allure was the works of art that pervaded these cities. Seeing tapestries, sculptures, frescoes, paintings, was believed to enhance the sensibilities of the travellers and make them more astute and cultured.

I recently travelled with my family on a mini "grand tour" for all of two weeks that took in Rome, Florence and Bologna. During a visit to one Florentine Church, Santa Croce (holy cross), I was reminded that this beautiful church was linked to a psychiatric condition.

It is famous for being the burial place of many illustrious Italians including Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Machiavelli and Rossini. It exudes high culture from every crevice, every stone, every slab of marble. It is richly adorned by paintings and sculptures by Giotto, Donatello and Henry Moore. Monuments within the church have been erected to great masters including Leonardo da Vinci and Dante. There is almost a feeling of visual overload with the splendour of its interior that includes 16 side chapels. It is referenced in EM Forster's book 'A Room with a View'.

Florence Syndrome is also called Stendhal syndrome, a pseudonym for the French author Marie-Henri Beyle. Hyperkulturemia or tourist's disease are other terms used to describe it. In 1817, Stendhal was visiting Florence while working on a book. During a visit to Santa Croce, he was shown the frescoes in the church and the tombs of the famous resting there. He was overcome with emotion; some claim because of the frescoes, other say the tombs were the trigger. He wrote that it was a sort of "ecstasy" and that he was "absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty", experiencing "celestial sensations". He described palpitations and a fear of falling.

While psychiatrists, for the most part, do not make this diagnosis anymore, a nearby hospital, Santa Maria Nuova, apparently still sees tourists who develop these symptoms following visits to the other beautiful galleries and sculptures in Florence. Among these are the famous statue of David, the ceilings in the Uffizi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio. The name Stendhal syndrome was given to the condition by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini in 1979 when she described a case series of over 100 cases. Some had psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations. Almost all resolve very quickly over hours or at most a few days. In her case series, more than one third had a previous psychotic illness.

This condition is not unique to exposure to art but can occur when the person is overwhelmed by a feeling of intense beauty or joy. This could be a view, a sunset, a religious experience or some other personal event. The likelihood is increased if the person has a prior psychiatric illness, or is suggestible or tired, for example due to jet-lag. Some actively seek these experiences using psychoactive substances.

A case was reported in 'BMJ Case Reports' in 2009 when a 72-year-old man was standing by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, which he had been very eager to visit. While there he experienced a panic attack followed, within a few minutes, by delusions that he was being monitored by international airlines and that his hotel room was being bugged. The symptoms resolved after a few weeks.

A person known to me attended the funeral of a well-known pop singer in another country and experienced a psychotic relapse there that was driven by the intense emotion she was exposed to, within herself and in others. It resolved on return home. It is claimed that Dostoevsky, Freud and Jung had similar experiences.

This unusual condition is not named as such in the 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual' nor in the World Health Organisation classification of psychiatric disorders. Most psychiatrists seeing such cases now would diagnose them either with brief reactive psychosis or with dissociative disorder, formerly known as hysteria. Both are uncommon and resolve quickly.

Brain imaging studies show that when viewing works of art people experience activity in the part of the brain that generates emotion.

I hope Stendhal would not feel that science undermines the very real sense of ecstasy he experienced at the beauty of Santa Croce.

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