BY Melinda Guy in Opinion | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

The Shock of the Old

The side-effects of looking at too much art

BY Melinda Guy in Opinion | 01 JAN 03

You know the feeling. Having negotiated the hazards of modern travel, you fetch up in Florence, light-headed with heat and the Tuscan skyline. You've identified your itinerary of must-see museums, and - guidebook in hand - you join one of the long lines of art lovers outside the Uffizi, the Bargello or the Accademia. Once you've passed through the turnstiles, you're torn between anticipation and a rebellious inclination towards the blasé, brought on by such a wealth of world-class artworks. Then suddenly you are in front of it - the real thing, a Raphael, a Fra Angelico, a Piero della Francesca. Your heartbeat increases, your eyes dilate and the gallery begins to recede ...

Looking at great art, according to the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, can be bad for your mental health. Every year a handful of visitors to Florence develop a peculiar pathology, caused by an encounter with the city's cultural treasures. Magherini has dubbed this condition the Stendhal Syndrome, and discusses its symptoms - breathlessness, panic attacks, fainting to the floor - in her book La Sindrome di Stendhal (1989). As she makes plain, most people's approach to art stops them succumbing to the syndrome. After a few minutes with a Florentine masterpiece, the typical tourist -well practised at putting the wonders of the world in their place - flees towards the comfort zones of pizza, wine and writing postcards home. Others, as Magherini notes, have a mental immunity, 'always remaining rational' despite the city's aesthetic delights.

There are those, however, who 'when faced with this city, can succumb to a complex crisis' well beyond the scope of average art appreciation. Magherini identifies these individuals as 'not intellectual, but sensitive and easily susceptible to emotions', tourists who are already stressed out by the turbulence of travel. For these rare souls (Magherini recorded only 107 cases over a period of eight years) there is every chance of an aesthetic response to rival that described by the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, in Naples and Florence - A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817): 'On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall.' The Stendhal sufferer's symptoms may even extend to temporary psychosis, resulting in a spell of bed rest in one of the couple of places reserved for the purpose at Professor Magherini's clinic. Italians themselves are immune to this condition - perhaps they're over-familiar with Florence and are fatigued by its beauty - while a preference for hit-and-run, highly regimented tourism makes the Japanese equally impervious. The professor, who has been studying the Stendhal Syndrome since the early 1980s, is keen to stress - perhaps mindful of Italy's tourist industry - that it is not caused by the city itself. The fault is not in Florence, but in ourselves.

That we carry certain predispositions with us is news from nowhere, but the extent to which we alchemize them with the works of art that we encounter is difficult to determine. Italian director Dario Argento entitled one of his films The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), very loosely hanging a gorgeous gore-fest on an opening gallery scene in which his heroine, Anna (a beautiful cop), hunts a serial rapist. Tracking her quarry through the Uffizi, Anna is brought down by the power that the surrounding masterworks - cut between shots of her chase - have on her. Stendhalized, she sinks to the ground and is promptly hospitalized. The process of Anna's recovery, impeded by several attacks by the rapist, sees her transformed into a bloodthirsty femme fatale. It's no accident that some of the paintings at the root of her downfall chart the clichés of female iconography: Botticelli's Primavera (1482) and Birth of Venus (1486), and Caravaggio's Medusa (1599) - from virgin through temptress to murderess.

Despite Professor Magherini's modern methodology, the Stendhal Syndrome taps into centuries-old anxieties about the deleterious effects of culture on the emotionally sensitive. In Argento's movie Anna is rarely seen out of a virginal but blood-spattered dress. We know that dress, and it never bodes well - women in white have been literary fall-girls for centuries. Back in the 18th century the sentimental English moralist Lord Shaftesbury, writing in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), noted that 'the very reading of accounts of melancholy has been apt to generate that passion in the over-diligent and attentive reader', considering it 'real humanity and kindness to hide strong truths from tender eyes'. Especially female ones, for whom, it was feared, art might addle the brain. Furthermore it might introduce Pandora to the powers of her box. Shaftesbury probably wouldn't have approved of the Italian housewife in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972), who, though 'like the dead' in bed, finds that she can recover her sexual responses in the public space of an art gallery.

Following Magherini's identification of the Stendhal Syndrome, her colleagues in Italy's scientific community have been tracking more amorous reactions to art. Not so long ago the sexologist Serenella Salomoni concluded that, for some pent-up aesthetes, beautiful paintings provoke strong sexual feelings. So to another city, another syndrome. The Roman Institute of Psychology recently published a paper noting a tendency, christened the Rubens Syndrome, for erotically charged activity to break out after, or even during, viewings of Old Masters, particularly those depicting a figurative romp - abstracts, apparently, don't do it for us half so well. Some 20% of the 2000 visitors studied had begun 'an erotic adventure' in a museum. An anonymous gallery guard at the Capitolini claimed 'I've seen affectionate gestures, and often much more in these rooms. It doesn't surprise me, just think of the incredible eroticism of The Dying Gaul.' Noting differing levels of activity at different sites, the institute helpfully compiles a league table of galleries where we are most likely feel to frisky. (The hottest spot? The Palazzo Doria, Genoa.)

Rubens' Syndrome, like Stendhal's, raises interesting questions about artists' intentions and their audience's response. Perhaps we could use these pathologies to determine cultural value: surely the work that provokes the most Stendhalian (or Rubensian) reactions is truly the most significant? Who knows, in the future a syndrome could even decide the Turner Prize.