The Stendhal Syndrome

The hospital of Santa Maria Nuova is the oldest active hospital in Florence. It was founded in 1288 by Folco Portinari, Beatrice‘s father (Dante‘s muse and inspiration). The building retains a significant historical and artistic value, and contains works by various artists, including Giovanni della Robbia, Giambologna, Alessandro Allori, Michelozzo, Andrea del Castagno.

The hospital enjoys a privileged position, because it is located in the historical centre, near the major tourist attractions.

In 1977 the Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, head of psychiatry unit at Santa Maria Nuova, began observing some cases of foreign tourists visiting Florence affected by acute episodes of sudden and short-term psychic suffering. All these patients had a good level of school education, a strong interest in the works of art, and they were travelling alone from Western Europe or North America. Their psychic discomfort invariably occurred after their arrival in Florence, always inside the museums during the observation of the works of art. The patients reported rapid heartbeat, fainting, dizziness, hallucinations. In total 106 cases were identified, analyzed and reported by Magherini [1] [2] [3].

It is worth noting that this psychosomatic disorder is not listed as a recognised condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Is it really possible that a work of art can upset the human mind so deeply?

In 2018, a foreign visitor to the Uffizi had a heart attack after seeing Botticelli‘s Birth of Venus [4]. What’s peculiar with this condition is that Italians seem to be totally immune to it [5].

From the analysis of the patients’ symptoms, someone in Magherini’s group thought of Stendhal, so that since then this alleged condition is called Stendhal syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome [6] [7] (Dostoevsky was thought to be affected as well [8]). But why Stendhal?

Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal), portrait by Olof Johan Södermark, 1840

We read from Stendhal’s travel book Rome, Naples et Florence on January 22, 1817 [9]:

“At the risk of losing all those little things you have around you when you travel, I had to stop the carriage as soon as I had finished the passport ceremony. I have looked so often at views of Florence that I knew it in advance; I was able to walk there without a guide. I turned left, passed a bookseller who sold me two descriptions of the city (guides). Only twice I asked for directions from passers-by who answered me with French politeness and a peculiar accent, finally I arrived in Santa Croce. There, to the right of the door, is Michelangelo‘s tomb; further on, the tomb of Alfieri, by Canova: I recognize this great figure of Italy. Then I have seen the tomb of Machiavelli; and opposite Michelangelo lies Galileo. What men! And Tuscany could join Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. What an astonishing meeting! My emotion is so deep, that it almost goes to piety. The dark religious aspect of this church, its simple roof, its unfinished façade, all this speaks vividly to my soul. Ah! if I could forget!…. A monk approached me; instead of repugnance almost to the point of physical horror, I found myself as a friend to him. Fra Bartolomeo from San Marco was a monk too! This great painter invented the chiaroscuro, he showed it to Raphael, and was the precursor of Correggio. I spoke to this monk, with whom I found the most perfect politeness. He was well pleased to see a Frenchman. I asked him to open the chapel in the northeast corner, where the frescoes of the Volterrano are. He took me there and left me alone. There, sitting on the kneeler of a prie-Dieu, the head upside down and leaning against the desk, to be able to look up at the ceiling, the Sibyls of the Volterrano gave me perhaps the greatest pleasure that painting has ever given me. I was already in a kind of ecstasy at the thought of being in Florence, and the vicinity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of the sublime beauty, I saw it up close, I touched it, so to speak. I had arrived at that point of emotion where the celestial sensations given by the fine arts and passionate feelings meet. When I left Santa Croce, I had a heartbeat, the so-called nerves in Berlin; life was exhausted in me, I was walking with the fear of falling. I sat down on one of the benches in Santa Croce square; I read again with delight these verses by Foscolo, which I had in my wallet; I did not see the flaws: I needed the voice of a friend sharing my emotion. […] The day after tomorrow, the memory of what I had felt gave me an impertinent idea: it’s better for happiness, I said to myself, to have a heart like that than a cordon bleu“.

Stendhal says that he visited Santa Croce on January 20, 1817, but the date is fictitious (on that day he was not in Florence, but in Rome); the visit occurred on September 26, 1811, as Stendhal writes in his Journal 1810-1811 on September 27, 1811 [10]. The episode was not included in the first edition of Rome, Naples et Florence in 1817, but only in the second edition in 1826 [11].

At the opposite of the Stendhal Syndrome there is the Paris Syndrome, which is a condition of disappointment felt by tourists when visiting Paris, feeling that Paris is not as beautiful as they thought. But this is another story.


[1] G. Magherini, La Sindrome di Stendhal. Firenze: Ponte Alle Grazie, 1989.

[2] G. Magherini, La sindrome di Stendhal. Il malessere del viaggiatore di fronte alla grandezza dell’arte, Milano, Ponte alle Grazie, 2003.

[3] Barnas M. Confrontations: an interview with Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini.

[4] J. Jones, Stendhal syndrome: can art really be so beautiful it makes you ill?, The Guardian December 18, 2018.

[5] C. Haberman, Florence’s Art Makes Some Go to Pieces, The New York Times, May 15, 1989.

[6] I. Bamforth, Stendhal’s Syndrome, British Journal of General Practice, 2010.

[7] T.R.J. Nicholson, C. Pariante, D. McLoughlin, Stendhal syndrome: A case of cultural overload, 2009.

[8] E.J. Amâncio, Dostoevsky and Stendhal’s syndrome, Arquivos de Neuro-psiquiatria, 2005.

[9] Stendhal, Rome, Naples et Florence (1826).

[10] Stendhal, Journal (1810-1811) IV, Le Divan, Paris.


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