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  • David J Wilson

    I don’t think I’ve ever read such a stupid, boring article as this one. I’m amazed at my own endurance in getting to the end of it.

  • PL

    As an art lover who lived many years in Rome, I much enjoyed this well researched and well crafted essay—even the post-modernish bit at the end where the author confesses that the narrative at the beginning was bogus.
    Otherwise I could find only one (possible) inaccuracy: at least I’m pretty sure I heard talk of ‘the Stendhal syndrome’ before 1979, the year when the author says Dr. Graziella Magherini ‘coined the term’.

  • postroad

    David
    If you found the article boring, why did you read it in its entirety? If you found it stupid, why not tell us why.

  • ASB

    Jung did not in fact visit Rome in his lifetime, writing that he felt (this is a loyal paraphrase) “the associations would be too great.” While it is clear he feared some sort of dissociative episode, the suspicion was never tested vis-a-vis reality. The fact is rather widely known among his readers.

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…for beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror,
which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

The first time I crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo I hardly noticed the angels at all. Drained after a long day aimlessly exploring Rome by foot, I had adopted a weary, unimpressed slouch. Rome is situated at a unique mythopoeic crossroads of historic significance and aesthetic effect, resulting in avenues crowded with landmarks stunning to the eye and “essential” to the history of Western civilization. Even to the most earnest visitor, Rome threatens to overwhelm with its gravity: I learned fast that I couldn’t stop to take in every sight for fear of being rooted to the spot. After a long day battered equally by art, history and the high Roman sun, I was wandering westward from San Luigi dei Francesi when the Castel Sant’Angelo swam into view over the Tiber River. I changed course and flowed north, unconsciously falling into an ancient trajectory shaped by the uncountable pilgrims before me.

The Ponte Sant’Angelo stretched across the river in a wide avenue made narrow by a throng of vendors and tourists. In wheeling half-turns, I navigated the bridge but quickly became frustrated by the heat and the press of the crowd. Seeking a moment of quiet, I descended to the foot of the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the trace italienne fortifications offered shade and a quiet park. I must have nodded off, propped against the sedimentary history of Rome. When I roused later, the air was cool, lifting my spirits as I mounted the Lungotevere. The chaos of late afternoon a distant memory, I found the fortress ramparts and attending bridge serene and abandoned. In the west the sun fired a last salvo, casting Michelangelo’s dome in shadow, but nearer to me, falling on the bridge and statuary in the precious tones of the magic hour.

I took to the bridge, this time traveling south. In relative solitude, my attention hung on the towering host of marble angels lining the bridge—five on each side, winged and draped in robes. United in theme, each angel was distinguished by posture in relation to burden: lance, sponge, nails, cross. I read the symbols of the Passion of Jesus Christ as if for the first time—limned in golden light and retold soundlessly, scuffed, impermanent, the narrative felt new.

I traveled the length of the bridge and back again, finally settling before Angel with the Cross. My mind tumbled and reeled as I admired the statue’s robe, refusing to reconcile the unflinching nature of marble with the illusion of suppleness, as if it would give and crumple at my touch. The angel’s wings were large and broad, curled slightly inward as if filled with potent energy. There were touches of ephemerality too: the angel’s right leg was bare to the thigh and bent weakly at the knee in a contrapposto twist; the robe flared suddenly at its edge, as if manipulated by a passing breeze. My attention landed on the divine visage: in the softly round features I found no lines of trauma or anger. Instead those gentle eyes, turned toward the titular burden, conveyed only resigned and compassionate sadness.

An uncomfortable tide of revelation rose as I became a third point of perspective between angel and instrument of torture. There on that bridge, standing before the angel bathed in the golden light of gloaming, I saw, more than understood, the complicated concord of sorrow and hope balancing the equation of Christian faith. My throat tightened. My pulse quickened. I fell back against the stone railing for support. The corners of my vision blurred.

Theorists and historians from Adorno to de Botton have observed that, in the absence of traditional religion, secular society finds its spirituality in art. Today, millions of secular travelers undertake pilgrimages to pay homage to what are perceived to be the artistic prophets of Western civilization. In cities like Paris, Florence and Rome, both traditional and secular pilgrims stand side-by-side in cathedrals (which double as museums) viewing the inspired productions of Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael and others. But where the aspiration of the religious pilgrim is perhaps deceptively clear—transcendence through divine agency (in this life or the next)—the purpose of the secular Art Tourist is muddier. What exactly is to be gained from the tremendous effort and expense of viewing art in person? And could something be risked by it?

The French author Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his nom de plume Stendhal, is one of Europe’s first modern travel writers. Stendhal got the travel bug early, moving to Paris as a youth before finding an opportunity to explore Europe in the entourage of Napoleon Bonapart’s Grande Armée. Initially as a dragoon and later as a bureaucrat, Stendhal crisscrossed Europe, as far east as the doorstep of Moscow (and back again in harrowing flight). For all his travels, his first would prove most significant as he followed Napoleon’s first campaign south over the Alps and into Italy.

In 1817, Stendhal published Rome, Naples and Florence, a travelogue chronicling his experiences in Italy in 1811 and 1814. (Nine years later he released a revised and expanded version.) As he recounts his first trip to Florence, he can barely control his enthusiasm: “Behold the home of Dante, of Michelangelo, of Leonardo da Vinci … Here within these walls, the civilization of mankind was born anew.” He traveled straightaway to the Basilica di Santa Croce, where he gazed in wonder at the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. “What a fantastic gathering!” he writes, “The tide of emotion which overwhelmed me flowed so deep that it scarce was to be distinguished from religious awe.” Blooming with brotherly compassion, the secular Stendhal engaged a friar who allowed the writer into a locked chapel. Stendhal propped his head on a desk and gazed up at Volterrano’s frescoes. There, in seclusion, Stendhal experienced “the profoundest experience of ecstasy, that as far as I am aware, I ever encountered through the painter’s art.” The author entered a trancelike state: “I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.” Then ecstasy turned into revulsion. Stendhal was gripped by a sudden nervous attack and he fled the church with his heart pounding and his head swimming. Stumbling and faint, he found a bench in the adjacent piazza and calmed his nerves by fishing a text out of his coat and reading poetry.

In 1979, Dr. Graziella Magherini, a psychologist at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, coined the term “Stendhal syndrome” to describe a pattern of psychological abnormalities she and her staff observed in tourists treated in her ward. At historic sites across the city—particularly the significant museums and churches—tourists were experiencing symptoms ranging from minor physiological disturbances, including shortened breath and heart palpitations, to significant psychological distress manifesting in panic attacks and hallucinations. In her 1989 book, La sindrome di Stendhal, Dr. Magherini presented her statistical methodology and detailed 107 case studies observed between 1977 and 1986, thereby cementing Stendhal syndrome in psychological discourse and popular imagination.

The most extreme examples of Stendhal syndrome share a sensation of self-fragmentation. Magherini describes the case of a 53-year-old German man who was hospitalized after repeatedly viewing Caravaggio’s Bacchus at Uffizi Gallery. The patient felt “an attraction closer and closer to an intimate sexual arousal of ambiguous nature that invaded him and made him feel good and bad.” Unmoored and distressed, he sought medical attention. After treating the subject’s initial episode, Magherini writes that he came to recognize his latent homosexuality. Another case involved a young art student from Prague, who, while viewing the Masaccio frescoes at Chiesa del Carmine, had a violent physical reaction and the characteristic sense of disassociation. By the time he saw Dr. Magherini, he was no longer able to speak, regaining the ability only after months of therapy. A 2009 article in British Medical Journal Case Reports describes a 72-year-old artist who realized his lifelong dream of visiting Florence. Standing on the Ponte Vecchio, he suffered a psychotic episode marked by a dissociative relationship with time and paranoid hallucinations. He feared his hotel room was being bugged and monitored by the airlines. The symptoms went untreated and gradually resolved in the weeks following his return home. Four years later he traveled to the South of France (with no intention of returning to Florence) and suffered a full relapse. He was treated with bed rest and mild sedatives, and the symptoms passed, returning only when he was stressed or sleep-deprived. Wounds left by art scar over, it seems, but they remain for life.

Dr. Magherini contends that she only sees the extreme cases of Stendhal syndrome; minor cases, she says, are likely occurring all over Italy and probably the world. The patients she treated were Western tourists but had few other unifying traits, other than symptoms traced to a moment of seismic distress: “The subject’s confrontation with the city of art, with its overwhelming image, remains the constant element.” In an interview with the magazine Metropolis M, Magherini describes Stendhal syndrome’s operation via the psychoanalytic concept of “mentalization”:

Affection, love and hate are transformed into symbols. A collection of symbols becomes a thought and a collection of thoughts can lead to reasoning, ultimately to philosophy and mathematics. However there is a hidden danger in this process, which should be a continuum. Sometimes emotions do not complete this transformation to surface as an idea, a thought. I have found from working with my patients that art can play a key role in this. A work of art may be able to pick up these past emotions and become their symbolic container.

Magherini goes on to contend that the art of the Renaissance has a particular power to disrupt the “healthy” process of mentalization: “Beneath these splendid forms are extremely powerful nuclei of communication, which can cause conflicts and disturbances in the psyche of the sensitive observer.”

An example of art’s dual nature can be found in the aforementioned case of the German man whose identity break, and eventual recognition of homosexual identity, was triggered by Caravaggio’s Bacchus. It depicts a teenage boy loosely draped in a white sheet, one shoulder and breast exposed, surrounded by overripe fruit, including a split pomegranate with fleshy seeds leaking out. The boy leans casually on his side, head crooked suggestively as he proffers a glass of dark red wine to the viewer. Contemporary readings of the painting’s symbolism have identified the not-so-subtle expressions of homosexual desire—but great works of art offer a variety of interpretations, any number of which could cause the “conflicts and disturbances” essential to Stendhal syndrome. One such interpretation can be found in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography of Caravaggio:

According to the Neoplatonic thought of the Renaissance, classical myth was alive with the shadowy anticipations of Christian truth. The legend of Dionysus, who died to be reborn, was regarded as a pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ. So it was that the figure of Dionysus/Bacchus became associated with the Savior himself … Those aware of his Christian aspect might also have noted how the toga that drapes him so loosely also resembles a winding sheet. The wine that he offers is the wine of his blood, an allusion lightly pointed by the heart-shaped shadow, angled towards the figure’s heart, cast by the decanter. The apparent promise of physical delight has been transfigured, changed to a metaphysical gift.

Seen with new eyes, the Christ figure offers the viewer not the wine of lust and revelry but the blood of salvation. The painting was considered so overtly sexual that historians suggest it was initially hidden away by Caravaggio’s first major patron, the relatively liberal-minded del Monte, only resurfacing in an Uffizi basement in 1913, unframed and unattributed. But it may be one of Caravaggio’s most overtly pious depictions, in message if not form. One can imagine a man who has systematically suppressed sexual desire feeling confused and ultimately freed as his passions are allowed to rise to the surface. Such is the transformative power of art, according to Dr. Magherini.

Stendhal syndrome falls into a contentious category of psychological disorders that writer Nadia Halim has termed “city-syndromes,” joining other city-specific disorders: Jerusalem syndrome and Paris syndrome. According to Halim, Jerusalem syndrome, first identified in the 1930s, has received the most attention and discussion in the medical community. It refers to Holy City visitors who are overwhelmed by the city’s religious significance and suffer a psychotic episode, resulting in remarkably similar symptoms, the most severe being:

The patients first become anxious and agitated, then separate themselves from any traveling companions. They begin to bathe and groom themselves compulsively. They then devise toga-like garments from white hotel linens, and, shouting out hymns or passages from the Bible, proceed to a holy site, where they deliver confused and rambling sermons.

Paris syndrome is unique in that it only affects a specific demographic of traveler: Japanese tourists. The French psychology journal Nervure reported 63 cases of Paris syndrome experienced by Japanese visitors between 1988 and 2004. In each case the tourist visited Paris with highly romantic expectations. Upon arriving in Paris, a modern city with attributes high and low, the tourists experienced shock, triggering deep depressive states, anxiety attacks, violent outbursts or psychotic delusions. What exactly Paris fails to deliver to the Japanese remains open to speculation.

In cases of the Stendhal and Jerusalem syndromes, the human psyche appears vulnerable to overstimulation, like a circuit board glitching under an excessive current. Whereas Paris syndrome appears to demonstrate the opposite—that one’s mental health can be undermined and damaged by disappointment.

In 1668, Ercole Ferrata sculpted Angel with the Cross, the artwork that so arrested my attention on Ponte Sant’Angelo. In his time, Ferrata was a well-respected artist who also completed the elephant and obelisk statue outside Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Ferrata’s legacy is largely forgotten today, lost in the shadow cast by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baroque sculptor par excellence, whose design and instruction guided Ferrata’s hand.

Bernini’s massive studio earned Pope Clement IX’s commission to redesign the Ponte Sant’Angelo. The first bridge at the site, Pons Aelius, was built by Roman Emperor Hadrian to provide passage across the Tiber to his mausoleum. In the centuries that followed, the Ponte Sant’Angelo (as it came to be called) served as primary access for pilgrims crossing the river on their way to Vatican Hill and one of the holiest sites in Christendom, St. Peter’s Basilica. Bernini was a master of bel composto, an artistic ideal that blurred the boundaries of painting, sculpture, set design and architecture to create fully immersive spaces. At the Ponte Sant’Angelo, Bernini’s palette included the towering castle, the bending river, the very sunlight and atmosphere of a site already steeped in centuries of history. His massive stone angels, bearing the symbols of the traumatic climax at the center of Christian faith, were orchestrated to unite these elements, engendering a spiritually transformative experience for pilgrims.

In hindsight, I suspect that my moment of near panic on the Ponte Sant’Angelo resulted from the combination of environmental factors with my compromised physical and mental health. In this weakened state, I was an ideal subject for the parade of weighted symbols Bernini and his artists arranged along the bridge. The connections between symbols, affect and understanding struck me with the immediacy and completeness of revelation. Reflecting on the experience today, I am even more convinced that the angel’s eyes conveyed the tragic weight of Christianity’s compassionate empathy, though I examine the notion with detached curiosity. It is with a twinge of embarrassment that I recall my panic on the bridge. Reacting so strongly to Baroque sculpture is roughly equivalent to weeping as the final rose is given on The Bachelor. In both instances the sentiment is so overwrought as to be laughable.

Bernini was, it has to be said, the perfect man for his time. Art of the Roman Baroque was born from a period of religious and political crisis. In 1517, a German friar permanently disrupted the Catholic Church’s spiritual near-monopoly in the Western hemisphere. A decade later, Rome itself was brutally sacked and left in ruin by a Protestant army. In the years that followed, the Catholic faith reeled while under assault from forces both inside and out. Two events were to secure the future of the Catholic Church. In 1563, the Counter-Reformation began in earnest when the Council of Trent came to a close, thereby reaffirming the tenets of Catholicism. In October of 1571, the fleet of the Holy League (a coalition of southern European Catholic forces) defeated the encroaching Ottoman Navy at Lepanto Gulf, securing the western Mediterranean. As the global seat of Catholic power, the papacy wanted to reassert Rome’s authority as a spiritual, artistic and political power. As the Baroque age dawned, the city’s leaders undertook a massive urban renewal campaign. A succession of spirited popes—Urban VIII (1623-44), Innocent X (1644-55), Alexander VII (1655-67)—left their legacies carved into the very stone of Rome, with wide avenues, towering churches and the stunning public art that distinguishes Rome to this day. Bernini and his contemporaries, like Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona, found themselves scrambling for commissions at the center of an artistic, political and religious revolution.

With the Catholic Church incensed and reinvigorated, the papacy wanted art that could simultaneously awe and instruct the populace. The mighty churches and artworks of the Baroque period were commissioned to convey overt symbolism (codified and maintained by the Church) that could incite devotion in lay churchgoers. Bernini did this better than anyone: his works are so expressive of Church doctrine that they flirt with propaganda. Bernini was fluent in the formal precision that Michelangelo mastered a generation before, but he distinguished himself with his ability to evoke complicated emotional states through physiognomic detail. In Bernini’s sculptures, Proserpina’s soundless, open-mouthed cry can be felt as the flesh of her thigh gives to Pluto’s grip. As David bites his lip, furrows his brow and threatens to step off his plinth, the room fills with the anticipation of violence.

In the centuries following the Baroque age, many artists, critics and historians decried the expressiveness of Bernini’s work as vulgar. Though perhaps no artist has ever been so deft with hammer and chisel—one can almost feel veins pulsing beneath the marble flesh—the subtlety of detail coheres so perfectly that the works don’t whisper with secret meaning but instead shout deafeningly. “After his death,” Simon Schama has pointed out, “Bernini would be attacked by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds for being a cheap sorcerer, a specialist in theatrical trickery, who—for the sake of wowing the worshipper—had, unlike Michelangelo, debased the purity of his chosen material … The more he made marble impersonate some other substance … the farther from the sublime he took the beholder and dragged him down to earth.”

In the modern era, Bernini’s reputation has enjoyed a resurgence in art historical and popular opinion. Separated as we are by more than three centuries of cultural distance, perhaps Bernini’s brazen displays of emotion have lost their propagandistic heft and are now free to simply “wow” as spectacle. His mastery of bel composto integration lends support to Dr. Magherini’s theory that art possesses a unique power to disrupt the psyche. Each identified case of Stendhal syndrome occurs in the physical presence of the triggering artwork—no one has gotten it from looking at a photograph. In today’s media-rich society we are bombarded by imagery and representations of “important” places and works of art. This seems to have made us value the “authentic” object more highly than ever, as evidenced by skyrocketing prices at auction and the millions who travel to see art in person. But the combination of idealized representation and image fatigue can have a deleterious effect on those who journey vast distances to see a work of art in person, only to find the “real” version less striking than the perfectly lit and close-detail images they had seen all their lives. Many tourists report an underwhelming experience in the drafty, dark and crowded Sistine Chapel. We are so educated in the canonical importance of cultural sites that the real experience can only be a disappointment. Why fly to Venice when the Las Vegas version is cleaner, cheaper and has better room service?

And it is here that the narrative begins to unravel.

Evidence suggests that Stendhal never experienced the extreme emotional response he describes in Rome, Naples and Florence. During the journey undertaken in 1811, Marie-Henri Beyle maintained a detailed diary that was later published as The Private Diaries of Stendhal. Comparing the two works, as Julian Barnes does in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, reveals several inconsistencies—concerning, for example, the season of his trip and time of arrival—which call into question aspects of Stendhal’s awed description of Brunelleschi’s dome. The transcendent and terrifying moment at the Basilica di Santa Croce’s Niccolini Chapel simply does not appear in the diary. There is no mention of the Volterrano frescoes (Stendhal does “tear up” before a painting by Bronzino, but only after feeling irritation at having identified the artist incorrectly). The exquisite delights of Florence, spiritual home of the masters of Italian arts, as described in the travelogue, are replaced in the diary by a short trip, marked primarily by complaints regarding Stendhal’s feet, pinched by new boots. Perhaps Stendhal invented the sequence to liven up his account for Rome, Naples and Florence. Perhaps he compressed several experiences into one for the sake of a better story. Perhaps he did have a panic attack while staring up at the ceiling and the story simply didn’t make it into his diary. We will never know.

Inconsistencies in Stendhal’s own work may seem irrelevant to the evaluation of Stendhal syndrome, but that is just the first of many issues plaguing Dr. Magherini’s diagnosis. To date, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not include Stendhal syndrome. Professional consensus has yet to be reached on whether the syndrome truly exists as an independent set of symptoms deserving of nosological categorization, as opposed to a set of preexisting conditions borne by the patient to the site of their distress. Perhaps Stendhal syndrome is just a vague categorization that organizes unconnected psychological structures around the arbitrary conditions of Florentine art. In La sindrome di Stendhal, Dr. Magherini contends that less than half of her patients have a previous psychiatric history. But prior medical histories are often incomplete, if not absent, where tourists are concerned, and subsequent treatment and analysis takes place when the patient has returned home, away from Magherini’s observation. Italian authorities take the syndrome seriously and have begun measuring heart rate and blood pressure in tourists visiting art museums, but no conclusive results have been released.

Stendhal syndrome has received limited attention from the medical community. Dr. Magherini and her critics agree that the art itself is an unlikely cause, at most facilitating physical and psychological breakdowns whose real causes lie elsewhere. But Dr. Magherini’s work, steeped in psychoanalytic theory and written in glowing, romantic tones, seems fixated on infusing the art of Florence with special significance. In her case studies, she returns again and again to the artistically repressed or uneducated backgrounds of her patients, as if wishing to prove art’s ability to liberate the mind from the shackles of (specifically bourgeois) oppression. But it might just be that tired, emotionally vulnerable people sometimes freak out. Art or not. This is not a revelation.

Stendhal syndrome has nevertheless taken root in the collective imagination. Searching for medical discussions of the syndrome is difficult, but one can find an abundance of magazine articles, editorials, blog posts and other miscellanies with titles like “Does Great Art Make You Ill?” and “Florence’s Art Makes Some Go to Pieces.” Scholarly articles abound, only in cultural journals as opposed to medical ones. Recent pieces have claimed that Dostoevsky experienced Stendhal syndrome when he viewed Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ, and that Proust engages Stendhal syndrome throughout the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Others have suggested that both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud expressed variations of Stendhal syndrome in relation to Rome and Athens, respectively.

A telling inconsistency in the Stendhal syndrome diagnosis and its subsequent retelling across media is the emphasis on the “significance” of the art connected to the psychotic episodes. The articles and blogs that recount Stendhal syndrome engage in a loose relationship with the facts, often bending or breaking them to prove a point (j’accuse). The most glaring and common is the insistence that Stendhal fell into his swoon under the intoxicating influence of Giotto’s frescoes. Neither Stendhal’s travelogue nor his diary mention Giotto at all. Yet Giotto appears in blog posts, articles and books about Stendhal syndrome.

In contemporary assessment, Giotto’s frescoes are the most significant works at Santa di Croce—therefore, they must have incited Stendhal’s frenzy. But the fact is that Stendhal chose to write about the artist Volterrano. (Largely forgotten, his frescoes are considered merely serviceable today.)

One of the more entertaining journalistic pieces about Stendhal syndrome is travel writer Louis Inturrisi’s “Going to Pieces Over Masterpieces.” With droll affectation, Inturrisi recounts overhearing an American tourist lamenting her exhaustion and sense of displacement. Feigning sympathy, Inturrisi speculates that it must be “Stendhal syndrome—the early stages.” It is soon clear that the harried travelers suffer only from their own over-ambition as they rush from site to site. Inturrisi sees a tourist pass out before the Caravaggio paintings in Santa Maria del Popolo. When she comes to, she comments that she was overwhelmed by the lack of air conditioning, not the art, and that in fact she prefers the Caravaggios at the Met because “the lighting is a lot better there.” From this experience Inturrisi proposes a counter-syndrome, a uniquely American condition called “Mark Twain malaise,” referring to the author’s disappointment, as recounted in The Innocents Abroad, upon viewing da Vinci’s Last Supper in its unrestored state. Perhaps the danger isn’t in the overwhelming affective power of art, but in the art tourists’ poor time management skills and the limits of human endurance.

In the summer of 2013, I spent more than two weeks in Rome. Exhausted, confused and overwhelmed, I did see Castel Sant’Angelo that first day, and even rested in the park. But it wasn’t until days later that I noticed the angels. Finding various excuses to pass by, I visited them in the morning, around noon, and late at night, always measuring how the changing light affected my experience. Slowly the germinal ideas of Christian empathy began to take root and the angels became increasingly significant. Yet I only stumbled upon my own revelation while rambling extemporaneously over carafes of house red. In my retelling the timeline is compressed and certain details elaborated upon. I did not set out to deceive, but I found myself rewriting history in subtle and eventually overt ways. My only “dangerous” interaction with art on that trip was upon seeing Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew at San Luigi dei Francesi, just a few blocks from the bridge. Encountering that hanging, crooked finger, I imagined clearly that it was pointed at me. A sudden rush of embarrassment pinned me to a nearby pew as I understood clear as day, to paraphrase another Rilke poem, that I had wasted my life. The moment passed, and I adore the painting today, though with a tinge of distrust.

While researching and writing this piece, Stendhal syndrome inevitably came up in my conversations with friends and family. As I sketched out the vague parameters of the diagnosis, I grew accustomed to seeing my audience’s eyes light up as they waited their turn to narrate personal experiences. Those without an anecdote seemed genuinely concerned, wondering what essential emotional register they lacked that they had never been so moved. Stendhal syndrome and Mark Twain malaise represent the two ends of the spectrum of art appreciation. In a contemporary culture so steeped in irony, Twain’s malaise seems to be emerging as the new normal. Much of the allure of Stendhal syndrome comes from the earnest desire to feel something when looking at the art we are told is important. Anything, even distress, would be better than nothing. I’ve come to realize we want to believe art can have this powerful, even dangerous effect. Where Dr. Magherini’s efforts have failed is in attempting to isolate and identify the source of art’s power; on closer examination, we find only greater ambiguity. Art acts on us; perhaps it is better not to know how, or why.

This article appeared in the Issue 10 symposium on travel. To buy the issue click here, or subscribe.

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  • David J Wilson

    I don’t think I’ve ever read such a stupid, boring article as this one. I’m amazed at my own endurance in getting to the end of it.

  • PL

    As an art lover who lived many years in Rome, I much enjoyed this well researched and well crafted essay—even the post-modernish bit at the end where the author confesses that the narrative at the beginning was bogus.
    Otherwise I could find only one (possible) inaccuracy: at least I’m pretty sure I heard talk of ‘the Stendhal syndrome’ before 1979, the year when the author says Dr. Graziella Magherini ‘coined the term’.

  • postroad

    David
    If you found the article boring, why did you read it in its entirety? If you found it stupid, why not tell us why.

  • ASB

    Jung did not in fact visit Rome in his lifetime, writing that he felt (this is a loyal paraphrase) “the associations would be too great.” While it is clear he feared some sort of dissociative episode, the suspicion was never tested vis-a-vis reality. The fact is rather widely known among his readers.

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