Falling to pieces over the masterpieces

After Siena-Sorrento-Genoa-Palermo-Naples-Florence, her feet were aching, her clothes were grimy and celebrated works of art and architecture were so muddled in Mary’s head that she couldn’t tell the difference between Brunelleschi and Donatello. Shocked by beauty, Stendhal's syndrome had struck in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy leaving her lightheaded and beleaguered.

Not the same kind of chaos, Mary was sure, that Proust experienced as soon as he fainted in front of the yellow wall on Vermeer's ''View of Delft,'' the one where Proust recounts this through his character Bergotte, who went a step further and dropped dead at the museum.

Mary didn’t make it to the Pitti Palace because she could not take in one more magnificent work of art, mural, arena, viaduct, or statue. She was having the bavorese, and gazed enviously at enraptured sightseers who had paced themselves. With strawberry dribbles on her last clean shirt, Mary boarded the train for Milan. A couple of days later, she was slumped in Milan 's train station with a ticket to Naples in her hand; the survivor of a forced march all the way through the Middle Ages. The shirt she had laundered with shampoo was damp and attracting gnats. It was plain to see that Mary needed a vacation from her vacation before she could unwrap the deposits of Milan from the Piazza del Duomo and Casa Reininghaus, the fashion district, and Castello Sforzesco. The glorious Piazza della Scala a lifetime vision, the minutely studied and meticulously designed two-weeks of marvel. Mary was marveled-out.

Peak Experiences of the Heart

The expression, "peak experiences of the heart," doesn’t belong to me and as much as I want to say it’s mine I can’t. It can be discovered it in a book by a Dutch monk living in a monastery in New York State. David Steindl-Rast says that it’s inspired by Abraham Maslow's famous "peak experiences" axiom, and in some ways it adds very little to Maslow's phrase because all peak experiences belong to the heart. But I like it. I think it conveys something very fetchingly about those wonderful moments everyone has when something lifts the heart with unexpected joy and delight.

”Florence—Firenze in Italian—was the birthplace of the Renaissance,” writes Kris Fresonke, Assistant Professor for the Department of English at the Adelphi University. “To walk its streets today is to tread in the footsteps of the last seven centuries of history and culture. The capital of Tuscany, Florence is truly the heart of Europe.”

The city of Dante, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, and the colorful Medici dynasty enchants visitors with its cobbled streets and medieval structures. The Uffizi Gallery houses some of the most magnificent works of art in the world.”

Long before the Medici, the Niccolini family arrived in Florence sometime around 1208 and over the centuries restored the chapel in Santa Croce, the work of Dosio. About a hundred years later the dome was frescoed by 'Volterrano' and the statues on the Niccolini Sarcophagi were the work of Francavilla.

The chapel is above all astonishing for the stone and marble used in its creation which makes it quite exceptional. It is believed that it was while appreciating this grand monument that the impressionable young 19th-century French novelist. Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, began to feel ill. This is how the expression "Stendhal's syndrome" became known.

Historic histrionics

“In our increasingly healthy world, people are coming up with ever-more imaginative ways to be sick, says John Naish of The Telgraph “ (Boredom, work and other illnesses )We relish tales of strange and deadly illnesses like horror stories on a winter night. Thanks to modern sanitation and medicine, those dangers are no longer anywhere near so real. But civilisation has given us more time, cash and energy to fixate on sickness. So the Western world has enjoyed a huge drop in mortal illness - and witnessed a leap in new diagnoses….”

”In a British Medical Journal poll of doctors on the top "non-diseases" being redefined as medical conditions, ageing came first, followed by work, boredom and bags under the eyes. Others included baldness, freckles, ugliness, jetlag, shortness, nail biting, bad breath, insomnia and hairiness….But many other doctors are keen to discover, or invent, new illnesses. It gets them published in the profession's fast-expanding body of story-hungry research journals. If their new disease is scary - or sexy - enough, it might get their name in the newspapers. And if they can specialise in treating their new illness, it could make them a lot of money….But we should not feel bad about our modern-day mass neurosis. That could cause an epidemic of Hypochondriasis Denial Syndrome to afflict millions of vulnerable health addicts. Instead, we should celebrate the masterpiece of human creativity that is hypochondria.” Here is one of his favorites:

    Stendhal's syndrome can strike culture vultures gazing at Florence's Renaissance treasures. Italian doctors warn that trying to see too many artistic and historical artefacts in too short a time can cause dizziness, panic, paranoia and even madness.

    It is called Stendhal's syndrome because the 19th-century French novelist is said to have been the first to write about the head-spinning disorientation some tourists experience when they encounter Florentine masterpieces.

    When Stendhal saw Giotto's ceiling frescos at Santa Croce, he was overcome. "Life was drained from me," he wrote in 1817. "I walked with the fear of falling."

The earliest citation for this phrase was in the fall of1986 when James O'Reilly's article titled “Beautiful and unspoiled Indonesia can turn into a trial for travelers" for the Chicago Tribune :

    Mary came to Florence from New York to fulfill a dream. She left here after four days, all of them spent in the psychiatric ward of a hospital.
    The city drove Mary mad.
    But the 34-year-old teacher, on her first tour of Europe, was not an isolated case.
    Crowded Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, a city where palaces and monuments submerge the visitor, where each stone has a story, each corner a legend, is literally driving some tourists out of their mind.
    A team of Italian medical researchers has labeled the temporary amnesia and disorientation of these patients "The Stendhal Syndrome" after the French novelist and writer whose real name was Marie Henri Beyle (1783-1842). For decades, the malaise was known as the "tourist disease." Stendhal, visiting Florence for the first time in 1817, suffered a mild attack of the madness.

The melancholy madness swept through him while he visited Santa Croce, the cathedral built by the Niccolini’s where the likes of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo have been laid to rest. While he was there Stendhal observed Giotto's celebrated ceiling frescoes for the first time, he was conquered by his emotions saying, "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.'' (Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817).)

In what may be an even earlier description of this “tourist disease” could be when the Anglo-German publicist and playwright Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927) moved to Florence in 1879. His purpose was to study botany at the university, but Florence presented so many artistic impressions that Chamberlain spent seven months caught up in a cultural intoxication. Later the situation would repeat itself when he encountered the works of Shakespeare and the music of Richard Wagner.

It would be more than a century and a half later when Dr. Graziella Magherini the chief of psychiatry in the late ‘70’s at Florence's Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, became aware of the correlation of the tourists who visited Florence and were overcome with symptoms ranging from fleeting panic attacks to fits of total madness that lasted a number of days. Recalling Stendhal's similar warning signs she named the condition Stendhal's syndrome. By 1987 a similar affliction was identified as Jerusalem syndrome which afflicts visitors to the holy city of Jerusalem and “are overcome by the mental weight of its history and significance”

Rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to a Truly Great Work of Art are hallmark’s of Stendhal syndrome or Stendhal's syndrome. First offered as a diagnosis in 1982 the swooning or feeling faint tourists suffering a sensory overload in front of an artwork has made its way into the local media today. One example is the Firenze Spettacolo which lists the places that regularly provoke the attacks so that tourists can brace themselves before visiting. The most frequent masterpieces that people go to pieces over are:

  • Santa Croce's Cappella Niccolini, with Giotto's Frescos
  • The Accademia, with Michelangelo's Davide
  • The room in the Uffizi with Botticelli's Primavera
  • San Lorenzo's Sagrestia Nuova, with Michelangelo's sculptures of the Four Seasons
  • The Quartiere Planetario hall of the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti
  • Luca Giordano's hall in Palazzo Medici Ricciardi
  • The hall in the Uffizi with Piero Della Francesca's Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Because there have been so many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting and even disrobing while taking in Florentine art, an intensely fictionalized version of Stendhal syndrome was made into a movie in 1996 starring this affliction is a supporting role, La Sindrome di Stendhal. The Dario Argento's suspense tale stars “a policewoman trying to capture a vicious serial rapist and killer. The problem is that she suffers from "Stendhal's syndrome"… when she is exposed to the sight of paintings and artistic masterpieces. When the maniac lures her into a trap inside Florences' famous Uffizi museum, her troubles are just beginning.” By 2003 the syndrome figured in the plot of the novel Diary by American author Chuck Palahniuk.

Uffizi's Tries to Outdo Louvre

While it’s currently on hold for an archeological dig, Italy is to trying to turn Florence’s Uffizi gallery into a premier art museum of Europe using an grand 56m euro (£38m) design to double its exhibition space. Giuliano Urbani, Italy's culture minister, said the expanded gallery would surpass "even the Louvre".

Visitors will be able to view 800 new works of art by the time the project is finished embracing many that are currently crowded into the gallery's storerooms due to a lack of space. The question was naturally arises about the expansion increasing the hazard of inducing Stendhal's syndrome. Roberto Cecchi, the government official in charge of the project, replied fatalistically: "Yes. It'll double it".

Sources:

Boredom, work and other illnesses:
http://portal.telegraph.co.uk/health/main.jhtml?xml=/health/2004/10/11/hsick11.xml&sSheet=/health/2004/10/11/ixhmain.html
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Cosa Bolle In Pentola # 76:
http:// italianfood.about.com/library/weekly/blnl076.htm
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain:
http://www.hschamberlain.net/index.html
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Niccolini Family:
http://www.niccolinirealestate.com/niccolini/?lang=eng
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Sindrome di Stendhal, La (1996):
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117658/
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Stendhal syndrome:
http://www.answers.com/topic/stendhal-syndrome?method=5&linktext=Stendhal%20syndrome
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Uffizi to double in size as Italy tries to outdo Louvr:
http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1156471,00.html
Accessed March 19, 2006.

Word Spy - Stendhal's syndrome:
http://www.wordspy.com/words/Stendhalssyndrome.asp
Accessed March 19, 2006.

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