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Stendhal Syndrome: When Beauty Breaks Your Body

Author: Winnie Mok

Editors: Ken Saito and Misha Wichita

Artist: Leo Li

We have all heard the saying, “too much of a good thing,” which sums up Stendhal syndrome. The basic concept of aesthetic sickness or Florence syndrome, both of which the psychosomatic disorder is also known, is that a person experiences intense mental and physical symptoms after viewing immensely beautiful artwork. While people may have extreme emotional responses to art, such as breaking down in tears, symptoms of Stendhal syndrome include tachycardia (fast heart rate), dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, chest pains, hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, and more. The condition is very uncommon, occurring most frequently in single adults ranging from 26 to 40 years old. But despite its rarity, there have been well-known historical people who have had Stendhal Syndrome, most notably, the man this condition was named after, Marie-Henri Beyle.

Stendhal syndrome was first named by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini in 1989 in recognition of Marie Henri Beyele, who went under the pseudonym “Stendhal.” The French writer wrote in relation to gazing at the frescoes in the Santa Croce chapel in Florence: “I had reached that point of emotion that meets the heavenly sensations given by the Fine Arts and passionate feelings. Leaving Santa Croce, I had an irregular heartbeat, life was ebbing out of me, I walked with the fear of falling.” The symptoms he described included gait dyspraxia (inability to use one’s legs properly) and acute tachycardia, which are in accordance with the symptoms above. Dr. Magherini had studied 106 patients who all had two things in common: they were all tourists and experienced symptoms ranging from dizziness and palpitations to hallucinations and depersonalization after laying eyes on art.

Although not part of the patients studied, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and writer Fyodor Dostoevsky are also examples of Stendhal syndrome in the past. Freud experienced intense alienating and depersonalizing emotions due to his visit to the Acropolis in Athens. Dostoevsky suffered serious paralysis upon viewing Le Christ mort au Tombeau by Hans Holbein in Basel, Switzerland.

As established before, Stendhal syndrome results from observing something that is profusely beautiful, usually art and architecture, along with nature. However, that does not explain everything, as more people would experience the syndrome then. Cristina de Loreto, a psychotherapist based in Florence, offers another possibility that tourists’ anticipations of a place like Florence are so elevated, combined with art everywhere, become too overwhelming when they finally arrive there. This explanation supports why Stendhal syndrome happens most frequently among visitors to cities full of man-made visual beauty, such as art museums and significant architecture. These cities, which include Florence, also comprise Athens, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.

There is no current treatment for Stendhal syndrome, and most symptoms do not require medical attention. Once a person has experienced Stendhal syndrome, they are more likely to face it again. Some good preventative measures to keep in mind are to stay hydrated, well-rested, and protected from the sun.

Stendhal syndrome raises some intriguing questions about the nature of beauty and its effects on human psychology. Why do some people react more strongly to beauty than others? How does beauty affect our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors? What makes something beautiful in the first place? You can explore these topics further if you want to learn more about Stendhal syndrome and its implications.

 

Citations:

Cherney, Kristeen. “Stendhal Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More.”

Sánchez, Leonardo P, et al. “Stendhal syndrome: a clinical and historical overview.” SciELO,

Stables, Daniel. “Stendhal syndrome: The travel syndrome that causes panic.” BBC, Jan. 11,

2022, https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220110-stendhal-syndrome-the-travel-

syndrome-that-causes-panic.

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