Updated: May 15, 2019
Ever heard of Stendhal syndrome? I hadn’t either until the other day when a gentleman had a heart attack while looking at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. It is supposedly linked specifically to viewing art in Florence. Because Florence is known to have so many masterpieces it seems to affect people who visit the galleries and museums of the city.
Stendhal syndrome is when a person is overcome with physical symptoms such as dizziness, fainting, or confusion when looking at great works of art. It can also have psychological and emotional repercussions too. Essentially the viewer becomes so overwhelmed by their experience in front of great works of art they suffer serious mental and physical side effects of the encounter.
There has even been a study on Stendhal syndrome: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3027955/ I am not going to disagree that Florence has some of the most beautiful art in the world. I have stood in front of Birth of Venus and Primavera at the Uffizi gallery in Florence and to be honest I did feel a bit odd and was certainly overwhelmed, however it was also the beginning of June last year and Florence was very warm as was the Uffizi Gallery.
There is also the fact that you do not view these works in a void. There are hundreds of people in the gallery and thousands more walking the halls of the Uffizi. Not only are you viewing some of the most amazing pieces of art in the world but you are also surrounded by crowds and in a warm and to a certain extent claustrophobic environment. At any time there are probably 50-100 people crowded around the major works of art.
I have felt overwhelmed when I have had the opportunity to see great works. Emotions run through you that you could not have possibly thought possible. You are excited by the moment and you don’t really know what your reaction may be. However, I do question the idea of Stendhal syndrome. I think that art can overwhelm, I also think we can experience physical and mental effects from an amazing piece but I also think that other factors could be at play in some of the more extreme cases.
I would love to hear about your experiences with art. Have you ever been overwhelmed or overtaken by a work in a gallery, museum, or even on the street? Let me know in the comments below.