The Stendhal Syndrome Causes Museum-Goers to Make An Exhibition of Themselves

updated 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For the beleaguered foreign traveler, troubled by strange food, unfavorable exchange rates and the specter of international terrorism, there is something new to worry about. Disguised as great beauty, this danger lurks in the museums and churches of Europe, just waiting to fell the unwary.

Consider, for instance, the case of Franz, a middle-aged engineer from Bavaria. While he was gazing at Caravaggio's Bacchus'm the Uffizi museum in Florence, Franz began to experience what his case history describes as "an attraction closer and closer to an intimate sexual arousal of ambiguous nature that invaded him and made him feel good and bad." Naturally, his heart started to pound, and Franz felt faint. He was only the latest victim of the Stendhal Syndrome—a little-known but potentially disruptive malady that can strike the overly sensitive when they are in the presence of great art.

Victims of the Stendhal Syndrome (named after the 19th-century French novelist who became one of its most conspicuous early victims when he was overwhelmed by the frescoes in Florence's Church of Santa Croce in 1817) evince a variety of symptoms, including heavy perspiration, rapid heartbeat and stomach pains. Some faint. Others think that figures in paintings are talking to them. Some even think they are the figures in the paintings, which shows just how confusing the syndrome can get.

Franz's story and those of 106 others have just been published in The Stendhal Syndrome, a book by Dr. Graziella Magherini, chief of psychiatry at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence. The 58-year-old Magherini has had ample opportunity to study the Stendhal Syndrome, which she discovered and put a name to 10 years ago, because Florence is chock full of great art and architecture—not to mention hordes of impressionable tourists.

"The syndrome is a combination of things," says Magherini. There's the stress of the trip, possibly combined with jet lag, and the degree of sensibility of the person involved." The typical sufferer is a single man or woman between the ages of 26 and 40 who rarely leaves home. Oh, and one more thing: Most victims, Magherini admits, have sought psychiatric help in the past. "A work of art is a very powerful stimulus to the inner representation of the psychological world of a person," she says. "These works can stimulate memories in our unconscious of which we are not aware."

Magherini, who has heard of the syndrome striking in other art-rich cities, such as Ravenna and Jerusalem, says art-attack victims need not despair. Even the most grievous cases are responsive to bed rest, peace and quiet and are usually up and around in two or three days. "My advice to people," she says, "is not to be voracious and to avoid an overdose. In other words, don't try to do the entire Uffizi in one day."

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