Does Beautiful Art Make You Sick?

A sure sign of getting older is when you struggle to make sense of the younger generation’s lingo. For those of Generation X or older, declaring that something is “sick” means that it is physically unwell or repulsive. For the “youngins” of this culture, “That’s sick!” is a way to express admiration.

For a sufferer of Stendhal’s syndrome, saying that art is “sick” is an expression of both seemingly-contradictory meanings. That person is overwhelmed by the beauty of art to the degree that it induces sickness.

In 2018, a visitor to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was gazing with undisguised wonder at Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Abruptly, he grasped his chest and collapsed. He was so overcome by the magnificence of the piece that he suffered coronary arrest. Upon examination, he was diagnosed with Stendhal’s syndrome.

…for beauty is nothing

but the beginning of terror,

which we can just barely endure,

and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Stendhal’s syndrome gets its name from the nom de plume of French travel writer Marie-Henri Beyle. Writing under the name “Stendhal,” he wrote Rome, Naples and Florence in 1817. In it, he chronicled his travels in Italy. He described his experience at the Basilica di Santa Croce, when he saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo. “What a fantastic gathering!” he wrote, “The tide of emotion which overwhelmed me flowed so deep that it scarce was to be distinguished from religious awe.” Immediately after this experience, he studied Volterrano’s frescoes. There, he felt “the profoundest experience of ecstasy, that as far as I am aware, I ever encountered through the painter’s art… I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.”

Without warning, the indescribable ecstasy turned to revulsion. Stendhal reported experiencing an overwhelming attack of anxiety. He fled the church with his heart pounding and his head swimming. Barely able to walk and on the verge of fainting, the author slumped onto a bench in a nearby piazza and calmed his nerves by reading poetry.

Stendhal’s experience was not unique to him. In 1979, Graziella Magherini, a psychologist at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, described a pattern of psychological problems in patients under her care. The symptoms ranged from temporary shortness of breath and heart palpitations to extreme psychological distress in the form of hallucinations and panic attacks. Those who experienced these symptoms had one thing in common: they happened at historic sites around the city that were notable for beautiful works of art.

Magherini described 107 cases in her 1989 book, La syndrome di Stendhal. One of the cases presented in the book was that of a young art student from Prague who was viewing the frescoes at Chiesa del Carmine. While doing so, he had a violent physical reaction and a sense of disassociation that resulted in his inability to speak. It took months of therapy before the young man regained his speech.

Magherini said the cases with which she was associated were primarily from Florence, “because we have the greatest concentration of Renaissance art in the world.” She said similar cases have presented all over the world, however. It is contact with beautiful art, however, that seems to be the trigger. “The subject’s confrontation with the city of art, with its overwhelming image, remains the constant element,” she concluded.

One of the subjects she studied was given the name Inge. Inge came to Florence from a Scandinavian country and immediately started to feel “out of sorts.” This quickly develops into feelings of paranoia. Later, upon viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” she began to hallucinate flashes of light and saw herself in the painting, carrying a fruit basket to Jesus. Her condition continued to deteriorate, necessitating hospitalization.

Another case involved a 72-year-old artist who suffered a psychotic break while standing at the Ponte Vecchio. He was struck with paranoid delusions and became convinced that his hotel room was bugged and that he was under surveillance by airlines.

The study of Stendhal’s syndrome has offered further confirmation of our suspicion that all artists are half bent to start with. After writing about an artist who got away with a slap on the wrist after living in a mall for four years, a Renaissance sculptor who pulled off the greatest practical joke of all time, and how Picasso routinely shot a gun filled with blanks at anyone who questioned the meaning of his work, we have come to the conclusion that a person can get away with practically anything, as long as it is done in the name of art. We posed this suspicion to the Commonplace Fun Facts art director, who simply responded by rubbing his hands together and displaying an evil grin that suggested he may have just killed Batman.

Stendhal’s syndrome has yet to be recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Even so, visitors to museums would be well advised to view the beauty in small, easily-digestible chunks.

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