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What Is Florence Syndrome?

There’s nothing like having the opportunity to appreciate the art you find to be the best. But as the human brain has developed over time, so have the genres of art that people work in. What’s more amazing that the multitude of pieces created by people, is how profound an effect certain pieces can have on an individual’s psyche.

Some people have what is known as Florence Syndrome – more widely known as Stendhal Syndrome and hyperkulturemia. The syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder “that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art.” One of the more extreme symptoms is ‘temporary madness.’

Origins of the Syndrome

Named after 19th Century French author Henri-Marie Beyle (1783-1842), pen name ‘Stendhal,’ had shared a negative experience he had at 34 years old in 1817. Stendhal shared what impression Giotto’s famous ceiling frescos left on him when he visited Florence’s Santa Croce Cathedral:

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“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.”

Origins of the Name

Stendhal shared his account in a book titled Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio. Since the experience the writer had there, similar bouts of Stendhal Syndrome have affected people mostly at the world-famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The condition was officially named Stendhal Syndrome in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini (at the time, chief of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital).

The doctor saw similar symptoms in tourist visiting Florence, people often suffering panic attacks and short bouts of madness. She coined the name based on the French author’s account. Dr. Magherini also later documented more than 90 cases in her 1989 book La Sindrome di Stendhal, with the majority of those cases admitted to the hospital between 1977 and 1986. Magherini believes that the condition was associated with “a latent mental or psychiatric disturbance that manifests itself as a reaction to paintings of battles or other masterpieces.”

Types of Stendhal

Dr. Graziella Magherini’s documented 106 cases were separated by type:

  • Type 1: 70 patients were afflicted with predominantly psychotic symptoms (e.g. paranoid psychosis, hallucinations, disembodied voices)
  • Type 2: 31 patients experienced mostly affective symptoms, such as depression and anxiety
  • Type 3: 5 patients experienced the somatic expression of anxiety, such as prolonged sadness, irritability, panic attacks etc.

According to the doctor, 38% of Type 1 patients had prior psychiatric issues, while as much as 53% of Type 2 patients did. Few cases of Stendhal have been published in recent years, but there was a recent case in 2009, published by Dr. Timothy Nicholson and some colleagues in the British Medical Journal Case Reports. The case dealt with a 72-year-old who had developed transient paranoid psychosis after a tour of the Florence culture.

The report stated the following:
“While standing on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, the part of Florence he was most eager to visit, he experienced a panic attack and was also observed to have become disoriented in time. This lasted several minutes and was followed by florid persecutory ideation, involving him being monitored by international airlines, the bugging of his hotel room and multiple ideas for reference. These symptoms resolved gradually over the following 3 weeks.”

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Similar Recent Cases

Edson Amancio, a Brazilian neurosurgeon published a paper in 2005 citing evidence that Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered Stendhal Syndrome when he was viewing Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ on a visit to the museum in Basle.

A 2010 issue of the British Journal of General Practice had claims from Dr. Iain Bamforth, that Marcel Proust suffered the condition at one point, and that both psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung wrote about experiences that seemed to describe Stendhal.

It is not yet recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A report from the Daily Telegraph states an Italian team is currently working on examining the condition closely by monitoring tourist’s reactions (heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, etc.) as they view the artworks contained in the Palazzo Medici in Florence.

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