Stendhal syndrome: definition, symptoms, prevention

It has also been nicknamed the “Florence syndrome”, as the Italian city has no rival in terms of amazing museums. This heightened emotion affects tourists in front of works of art, paintings, sculptures, films and other masterpieces. Between ecstasy and anxiety, one thing is certain, this giddy excitement is the opposite of indifference.

What is Stendhal syndrome?

Art is an endless source of emotions. This is normal and almost no one is immune to it. But sometimes, the emotion caused before a masterpiece is very strong, excessive. Then we can enter the field of pathology. The film Stendhal’s syndromedirected by Dario Argento, refers to it.

Like the book of the same name, published by Glénat, written by Aurélie Herrou. It tells the story of Frédéric Delachaise, museum guard at the Pompidou Center. Having only disdain at first for the works he had to look at, he soon became fascinated by contemporary art.

In 1817, the French writer Stendhal provided a perfect example of this in his trip to Rome, Naples and Florence. After discovering the basilica of Santa Croce, he is ecstatic. The author writes these words in his book: “I had reached this point of excitement where the heavenly sensations that Fine Arts gives and passionate feelings meet. Leaving Santa Croce, I had a palpitation, life was exhausted at home, I walked with the fear of falling”.

Henry Miller, in the semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Capricorn (editions Le Livre de poche), states: “For me, Stendhal’s syndrome was something of a fiction… I would never have believed that we could experience it… And I did. An excessive sense of beauty. I was tired of this constant beauty.”

Of course, Florence, Rome or Naples, three of the cities of Italy, whose visit cannot leave indifferent, do not have the monopoly of Stendhal syndrome. Cases can be found in France, in the fabulous museums of Paris, the Louvre, the Pompidou Museum and beyond, all over the world.

Patient profile

Precisely in Italy, the psychiatrist Graziella Magherini will be the first to describe this disorder in 1979. She reports 106 similar cases, all foreign tourists, admitted to the emergency room after they felt palpitations, mistreatment, dizziness. .. while contemplating the works. of art in the city of Florence, especially the Uffizi Museum. According to her, tourists from North America and Asia are frugal. Because they don’t share this culture, they don’t necessarily have the same codes, they find it easier to take a step back.

This abundance of masterpieces, such as Michelangelo’s David, does not have the same effect on them. Italians, who fell very young into the pot of art, accustomed to such beauty, never develop this syndrome, unlike European art lovers. However, according to her, the most “at risk” people have in common to be sensitive and passionate, with a unique relationship with art – not just art critics. Being on a journey, away from home and their landmarks, makes them more vulnerable. These people “fall” into this syndrome without any psychiatric history or drug use. According to Magherin, this phenomenon echoes the history of the people in question.

Symptoms of Stendhal syndrome

Rapid heartbeat, difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath, sweaty palms, feeling dizzy and sometimes derealization”describes Rodolphe Oppenheimer, psychotherapist-psychoanalyst ( Stendhal’s syndrome is a violent emotional shock, a psychosomatic illness. Disorders can last from a few hours to a few days and vary greatly from individual to individual. In the most extreme cases, severe anxiety, hysterical attacks and hallucinations have been observed. So many symptoms reflect an excessive admiration that overwhelms the traveler. These problems can arise in front of a “filling” of masterpieces in a short period of time, or in front of a single work of art, because it represents something special.

For example, in December 2018, a tourist collapsed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, in front of the painting “Birth of Venus”, Botticelli’s masterpiece. Many journalists asked themselves the question: was the heart attack – fortunately not fatal – due to the age of this traveler (70 years old) or the emotion he felt in front of the character of this work? This question is also central. Some doubt the reality of Stendhal syndrome. What is their theory to explain this disease? These travelers prefer to be victims of fatigue, stress, crowds and heat, putting them at risk of feeling sick. Stendhal syndrome is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.

Avoid repetition

Rest is recommended after such episodes. In the long run, “These people can be accompanied by a professional. Cognitive and behavioral therapy, for example, will allow the patient to learn effective ways to relax.” A virtual reality headset can also help to “immerse” in a museum, in front of works of art that may disturb us. “It’s habit therapy,” says our expert. Gradually, the patient becomes desensitized. If he was allergic to a food and that the doses of this food were increased very gradually. He can marvel at the works of art again, without it being dangerous for him.

In this prevention perspective, some advice should be followed, knowing that travel insurances may have difficulty recognizing this disorder… Susceptible travelers should take care to rest well, eat and hydrate properly, focus on some work at the same time. , and not overload their vacation agenda by flipping through their travel guide too early. To enjoy works of stunning beauty without risking your health…

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