The Many Manifestations of Art Attacks—Art and Psychology
Stendhal Syndrome describes a phenomenon where someone falls ill from simply existing within the same space as historical masterpieces. However, this condition manifests in many forms, plaguing tourists traveling for religious pilgrimages and romantic cities. Conditions such as this also reference frenzied fervor for classical musicians in the mid-1800s.
Has a painting ever made you feel emotional? Have you ever looked at a sculpture and felt your stomach drop? Have you ever stood back and realized that no matter what you’re looking at, you’re looking at a piece of history? Artists craft masterpieces with the intention of making an earthquake of change with emotion at its epicenter. These works will undoubtedly evoke powerful sentiments when experienced in real time, but some viewers are particularly overwhelmed by the phenomenon of contemplating an abundance of historically significant works of art. Some cities are so dense with masterworks in the arts and world history as a whole that tourists, engulfed with sentiment, can fall ill and begin hallucinating in the midst of so much beauty.
The History of Stendhal Syndrome
The origins of the “art attack” date back to 1817, when Marie Henri Beyle visited Florence. It was one of many stops along his journey of cultural exploration, which he documented in Naples and Florence: a Journey from Milan to Reggio. He witnessed multiple masterpieces and the burial sites of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo. Amidst the overstimulation of experiencing a cultural epicenter for art, science, and literature, he wrote:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty . . . I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations . . . Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves.' Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Beyle, who wrote under the pseudonym “Stendhal,” gave this psychological condition its name. Graziella Maherini, a psychiatrist in Italy, coined the term in 1989 in her paper La sindrome di Stendhal. When researching the influences of art on the human psyche, Magherini noted that a woman took a vacation to Florence for the first time in years, only to experience paranoia everywhere she went. After sitting in one of Italy’s grandiose cathedrals, she began experiencing heart palpitations and hallucinated that she was painting.
Stendhal Syndrome describes a series of extreme physical and mental symptoms a person may face when moved specifically by a piece of man-made artwork. The wording here emphasizes that the cause of this condition originates from the social constructs of beauty and art rather than from naturally occurring phenomena. For example, feeling moved after seeing a waterfall would not align with Stendhal Syndrome, but feeling the same way when seeing a painting of one might. Symptoms include confusion, fainting, heart palpitations, and in rare cases, hallucinations.
While the prominence of this condition continues to be debated by psychologists, cases of Stendhal Syndrome often warrant medical attention. This condition is not included in the DSM-V, mainly due to insufficient research on the topic. Despite its lack of official status, the fact remains that overexcited tourists have dropped to the ground, wrought with ardor in the wake of historically prominent masterpieces.
Individuals can theoretically contract this psychosomatic condition from a wide array of artwork, but there are specific pieces that have a track record of making viewers collapse on the floor. In 2018, a man suffered a heart attack after viewing Bottichelli’s The Birth of Venus. Upon viewing the masterpiece, the man collapsed to the floor and was rushed to the hospital with a defibrillator. That same year, the director reported that someone fainted in front of Caravaggio’s Medusa. Mona Lisa and ancient Roman ruins are also known to make visitors more susceptible to Stendhal Syndrome.
Variations in Psychosomatic Responses
Tourists and those traveling for religious pilgrimages face similar symptoms when standing on holy ground. When the devoutly religious encounter this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they can become overwhelmed with emotion, sometimes to the point of hospitalization. Doctors refer to this affliction as Jerusalem Syndrome, with symptoms manifesting in different ways, depending on the individual.
What distinguishes Jerusalem Syndrome from Stendhal Syndrome is its deep ties to religion. While Stendhal Syndrome describes the phenomenon of human-made art causing a psychosomatic response, Jerusalem Syndrome’s causes are deeply embedded in religious zeal, resulting from transcendent experiences among nature and ancient ruins. Some may experience similar symptoms as Stendhal Syndrome patients, but others have endured delusions of grandeur, elevating themselves as a religious figure as a result of being immersed in a sacred environment.
Because many have fallen ill with Stendhal-like symptoms in the City of Lights, there is an entire subcategory of culture shock emotional dysregulation specific to Paris. Psychologists are investigating different facets of culture shock, beyond the domain of art as the sole cause of psychosomatic symptoms. Paris Syndrome, much like Stendhal Syndrome, is dependent on location but distinguishes itself with its combination of art attack and culture shock. Some tourists have been so overwhelmed with the Parisian environs that they become sick, and hospitalized from intense emotional dread upon arrival. Symptoms include hallucinations, derealization, and anxiety.
Emotional frenzy over music manifests itself via collective obsession with the artist. Today, this behavior is exemplified by the mass hysteria generated by Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, but in the 1800s this feral response was nearly unheard of. Unprecedented fanaticism for Hungarian composer Franz Liszt overtook Europe in the mid-19th century. Heinrich Heine coined the term in 1844 when describing the unfathomable energy of the audience at the Italian Opera House, awestruck by the delirium among listeners as Liszt’s concert concluded.
This Lisztomania only continued to grow throughout the musician’s career. Fans would practice their instruments to serenade him, encouraged by the slight chance that he might hear. On the streets, fans would swarm him in hopes of grabbing his handkerchief, gloves, and even locks of hair. The sheer intensity of his devotees rivals modern fandoms of Beyonce, Swift, Elvis, and the Beatles.
A Universal Solution
Even though the phenomenon is excluded from the DSM-V, European doctors have had clinical experience in treating patients admitted for Stendhal Syndrome and similar emotional ailments. Their chief prescription: a one-way plane ticket home— a return to mundane, normal life often alleviates these troubling symptoms.
While cases of these psychosomatic illnesses remain mostly stagnant today, there’s no telling what those numbers will look like as more people begin traveling again. So if you or someone you know travels to Florence this year, be sure to send them a stress ball.
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