Gazing up at Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi in the rarefied corridors of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, I began to feel unusual. My stomach tightened and my heart raced; my knees buckled and my palms felt clammy. Were the chicken liver crostini from lunch coming back to bite me? Probably.
For some visitors to Florence, though, these are the symptoms of an acute illness that has nothing to do with food poisoning and everything, it would appear, to do with the city’s abundance of great art.
Stendhal syndrome is said to be a psychosomatic condition brought on by exposure to Florence’s embarrassment of artistic riches. It takes its name from the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by the pen-name Stendhal, who, in 1817, wrote of his trip to the Tuscan capital: “I was in a sort of ecstasy from the idea of being in Florence… I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart… the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”
The syndrome was clinically described as a psychiatric disorder in 1989 by Graziella Magherini, a psychiatrist at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. Magherini observed 106 patients, all of them tourists, who experienced dizziness, palpitations, hallucinations and depersonalisation upon viewing works of art such as the sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Botticelli. They were suffering “panic attacks, caused by the psychological impact of a great masterpiece, and that of travelling,” Magherini said in 2019.
Cases of the syndrome continue to be reported today.