by Laura Tressel
Slowly turning a corner in the Galleria dell'Accademia, I tilt my head back to gaze at the glory of the marble miracle that stands before me. There, alone under an airy archway, towers David, the king of Florence's statues. I was stunned into silence, and for a while, all I could do was take minuscule steps around the base of the sculpture, acquainting myself with every centimeter of intricate detail and pale, immaculate beauty. Soon enough I came out of my hypnosis and realized that I wasn't alone in the gallery, that there were hundreds of other visitors feeling similar emotions and marveling at the same wonder. Later, after leaving Michelangelo's masterpiece behind, I wondered at the strange effect it had on my mental state.
The explanation behind these feelings of overwhelming awe comes to us from the words of Stendhal, a 19th century French writer who visited Florence and described in his own way how, “I reached the emotional state in which we experience the celestial feelings that only the beauties of art and sentiments of passion can offer… 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" (1817). These lines were written after Stendhal witnessed the tombs of Santa Croce, which houses the remains of some of Florence's biggest legends including Dante, Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Michelangelo.
Stendhal Syndrome, as it has officially been named is a psychological condition diagnosed in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist, Dr. Graziella Magherini. She witnessed similar symptoms among visitors to Florence after being exposed to the artwork and historical magnitude of the city. Patients symptoms included disorientation, dizziness, seeing unrealistic visions or scenes, heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Dr. Magherini contributed this state of illness to the effect of artwork and Renaissance culture on the human psyche.
|Tomb of Galileo Galilei|
Most commonly, Stendhal Syndrome pertains to cases that occur upon visiting Florence, since the origins are very specific. However, the term can be applied to similar sensations felt when facing a grand spectacle of nature that makes a person feel overwhelmed by their connection with it. The feeling is one that draws the person out of their usual consciousness, and into a spiritual state that they have never experienced before. As Stendhal also describes, "I long for those rare moments when I shiver with the rush of altered consciousness. In an ephemeral blast of time's breath, it's like the universe reveals itself and there is a mutual recognition of all things."
The condition has been diagnosed to many visitors to the city since its discovery, and has even been made the subject of an Italian horror film, La Syndrome di Stendhal. The film was produced in 1995 by director Dario Argento, and at the time of its release became his biggest grossing movie in Italy. The plot focuses around the a young detective who travels to Florence in search of a serial killer, and falls victim to Stendhal Syndrome. Due to her altered consciousness, she loses the battle in her attempts to hunt down the villain. The story creates a darker vision of the effects of this psychological condition, which otherwise has not been known to cause such dramatic results. Some patients however, have been admitted to hospitals due to severe symptoms, and given psychiatric treatment to bring them back to reality.
Florence is a city that keeps history alive. Here, renaissance works are never "old" and every day brings busloads of new people, eager to witness them with fresh eyes. These visitors don't know of the danger that lurks behind the eyes of the paintings in the Uffizi, and the hard gaze of the marble guardians of the city. The danger of connecting with art and history in a way they never thought possible, of giving in to the inexplicable awe that understanding brings about. Some of these visitors may fall trap to Stendhal Syndrome and forget their itineraries and maps while reaching a higher level of consciousness connected with the living history around them.
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