Discover the Stendhal Syndrome: The Condition Where People Faint, or Feel Totally Overwhelmed, in the Presence of Great Art

Clutch imag­i­nary pearls, rest the back of your hand on your fore­head, look wan and strick­en, begin to wilt, and most peo­ple will rec­og­nize the symp­toms of your sar­casm, aimed at some pejo­ra­tive­ly fem­i­nized qual­i­ties we’ve seen char­ac­ters embody in movies. The “lit­er­ary swoon” as Iaian Bam­forth writes at the British Jour­nal of Gen­er­al Prac­tice, dates back much fur­ther than film, to the ear­ly years of the mod­ern nov­el itself, and it was once a male domain.

“Some­where around the time of the French Rev­o­lu­tion (or per­haps a lit­tle before it) feel­ings were let loose on the world.” Ratio­nal­ism went out vogue and pas­sion was in—lots of it, though not all at once. It took some decades before the dis­cov­ery of emo­tion reached the cli­max of Roman­ti­cism and denoue­ment of Vic­to­ri­an sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty:

Back in 1761, read­ers had swooned when they encoun­tered the ‘true voice of feel­ing’ in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s nov­el La Nou­velle Héloïse; by the end of the decade, all of Europe was being sen­ti­men­tal in the man­ner made fash­ion­able a few years lat­er by Lau­rence Sterne in his A Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney. Then there was Goethe’s novel­la, The Sor­rows of Young Werther (1774), which made its author a celebri­ty.

It’s impos­si­ble to over­state how pop­u­lar Goethe’s book became among the aris­to­crat­ic young men of Europe. Napoleon “reput­ed­ly car­ried a copy of the nov­el with him on his mil­i­tary cam­paign.” Its swoon­ing hero, whom we might be tempt­ed to diag­nose with any num­ber of per­son­al­i­ty and mood dis­or­ders, devel­ops a dis­turb­ing and debil­i­tat­ing obses­sion with an engaged woman and final­ly com­mits sui­cide. The nov­el sup­pos­ed­ly inspired many copy­cats and “the media’s first moral pan­ic.”

If we can feel such exal­ta­tion, dis­qui­et, and fear when in the grip of roman­tic pas­sion, or when faced with nature’s implaca­ble behe­moths, as in Kan­t’s Sub­lime, so too may we be over­come by art. Napoleon­ic nov­el­ist Stend­hal sug­gest­ed as much in a dra­mat­ic account of such an expe­ri­ence. Stend­hal, the pen name of Marie-Hen­ri Beyle, was no inex­pe­ri­enced dream­er. He had trav­eled and fought exten­sive­ly with the Grand Army (includ­ing that fate­ful march through Rus­sia, and back) and had held sev­er­al gov­ern­ment offices abroad. His real­ist fic­tion didn’t always com­port with the more lyri­cal tenor of the times.

Pho­to of the Basil­i­ca of San­ta Croce by Diana Ringo, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

But he was also of the gen­er­a­tion of young men who read Werther while tour­ing Europe, con­tem­plat­ing the vari­eties of emo­tion. He had held a sim­i­lar­ly unre­quit­ed obses­sion for an unavail­able woman, and once wrote that “in Italy… peo­ple are still dri­ven to despair by love.” Dur­ing a vis­it to the Basil­i­ca of San­ta Croce in 1817, he “found a monk to let him into the chapel,” writes Bam­forth, “where he could sit on a gen­u­flect­ing stool, tilt his head back and take in the prospect of Volterrano’s fres­co of the Sibyls with­out inter­rup­tion.” As Stend­hal described the scene:

I was already in a kind of ecsta­sy by the idea of being in Flo­rence, and the prox­im­i­ty of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in con­tem­plat­ing sub­lime beau­ty, I saw it close-up—I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emo­tion where the heav­en­ly sen­sa­tions of the fine arts meet pas­sion­ate feel­ing. As I emerged from San­ta Croce, I had pal­pi­ta­tions (what they call an attack of the nerves in Berlin); the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.

With the record­ing of this expe­ri­ence, Stend­hal “brought the lit­er­ary swoon into tourism,” Bam­forth remarks. Such pas­sages became far more com­mon­place in trav­el­ogues, not least those involv­ing the city of Flo­rence. So many cas­es sim­i­lar to Stend­hal’s have been report­ed in the city that the con­di­tion acquired the name Stend­hal syn­drome in the late sev­en­ties from Dr. Gra­ziel­la Magheri­ni, chief of psy­chi­a­try at the San­ta Maria Nuo­va Hos­pi­tal. It presents as an acute state of exhil­a­rat­ed anx­i­ety that caus­es peo­ple to feel faint, or to col­lapse, in the pres­ence of art.

Magheri­ni and her assis­tants com­piled stud­ies of 107 dif­fer­ent cas­es in 1989. Since then, San­ta Maria Nuo­va has con­tin­ued to treat tourists for the syn­drome with some reg­u­lar­i­ty. “Dr. Magheri­ni insists,” writes The New York Times, that “cer­tain men and women are sus­cep­ti­ble to swoon­ing in the pres­ence of great art, espe­cial­ly when far from home.” Stend­hal didn’t invent the phe­nom­e­non, of course. And it need not be sole­ly caused by suf­fer­ers’ love of the 15th cen­tu­ry.

The stress­es of trav­el can some­times be enough to make any­one faint, though fur­ther research may rule out oth­er fac­tors. The effect, how­ev­er, does not seem to occur with near­ly as much fre­quen­cy in oth­er major cities with oth­er major cul­tur­al trea­sures. “It is sure­ly the sheer con­cen­tra­tion of great art in Flo­rence that caus­es such issues,” claims Jonathan Jones at The Guardian. Try­ing to take it all in while nav­i­gat­ing unfa­mil­iar streets and crowds.… “More cyn­i­cal­ly, some might say the long queues do add a lay­er of stress on the heart.”

There’s also no dis­count­ing the effect of expec­ta­tion. “It is among reli­gious trav­el­ers that Stendhal’s syn­drome seems to have found its most florid expres­sion,” notes Bam­forth. Stend­hal admit­ted that his “ecsta­sy” began with an aware­ness of his “prox­im­i­ty of the great men whose tombs I had just seen.” With­out his pri­or edu­ca­tion, the effect might have dis­ap­peared entire­ly. The sto­ry of the Renais­sance, in his time and ours, has impressed upon us such a rev­er­ence for its artists, states­men, and engi­neers, that sen­si­tive vis­i­tors may feel they can hard­ly stand in the actu­al pres­ence of Flo­rence’s abun­dant trea­sures.

Per­haps Stend­hal syn­drome should be regard­ed as akin to a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence. A study of reli­gious trav­el­ers to Jerusalem found that “oth­er­wise nor­mal patients tend­ed to have ‘an ide­al­is­tic sub­con­scious image of Jerusalem’” before they suc­cumbed to Stend­hal syn­drome. Carl Jung described his own such feel­ings about Pom­peii and Rome, which he could nev­er bring him­self to vis­it because he lived in such awe of its his­tor­i­cal aura. Those primed to have symp­toms tend also to have a sen­ti­men­tal nature, a word that once meant great depth of feel­ing rather than a cal­low or mawk­ish nature.

We might all expect great art to over­whelm us, but Stend­hal syn­drome is rare and rar­i­fied. The expe­ri­ence of many more trav­el­ers accords with Mark Twain’s 1869 The Inno­cents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, a fic­tion­al­ized mem­oir “lam­poon­ing the grandiose trav­el accounts of his con­tem­po­raries,” notes Bam­forth. It became “one of the best-sell­ing trav­el books ever” and gave its author’s name to what one researcher calls Mark Twain Malaise, “a cyn­i­cal mood which over­comes trav­el­ers and leaves them total­ly unim­pressed with any­thing UNESCO has on its uni­ver­sal her­itage list.” Sen­ti­men­tal­ists might wish these weary tourists would stay home and let them swoon in peace.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Your Brain on Art: The Emerg­ing Sci­ence of Neu­roaes­thet­ics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

1.8 Mil­lion Free Works of Art from World-Class Muse­ums: A Meta List of Great Art Avail­able Online

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Puts 400,000 High-Res Images Online & Makes Them Free to Use

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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