My head was spinning, my heart was pounding. I was worried about hitting the stone pavers on the gallery floor if I fainted. I took a deep breath and walked slowly and carefully to the next one of the large paintings. It was my first experience with Stendhal Syndrome, but it would not be my last.
It was disorientating and confusing, but there is also the attraction of the art to consider. In this way, it was different from the pain of a panic attack where there is a powerful motivation to escape the experience.
It was in 1994 sometime between 9 September to the 3 October, and the exhibition was James Gleeson, Paintings from the Past Decade at the National Gallery of Victoria. I hadn’t planned to see it and had just wandered in. The sudden shock of this powerful aesthetic experience caused a physiological reaction.
Gleeson’s paintings had subtle references to the history of art, and I was aware that there was something that I couldn’t place. It was like the moment just before you get a joke or recognise a face but extended into minutes.
I had no idea what was happening. Thankfully, it did not last long and was over after an hour. I would go on to have experience Stendhal Syndrome on a few other times and read other first-hand accounts of it.
Although Stendhal wrote about his experiences in 1817. Stendhal Syndrome only made medical literature when Italian psychiatrist, Graziella Magherini wrote about it in 1989. It is also referred to as Florence Syndrome and “hyperkulturemia”. Alternately it could be diagnosed as mild ecstatic epilepsy.
It wasn’t long before it made popular culture. Wm Burroughs wrote, “My ambition is to evoke Stendhal Syndrome!” He wanted to have people carried out of his art exhibition on stretchers (Painting and Guns, 1992). Later Cerise Howard showed me the 1996 Italian film Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) by Dario Argento.
Music and dance performances have provoked powerful effects on me. These have been extremely cerebral, closer to a mystical experience, where I felt as if I was floating and had no bodily sensations. I wonder if standing and walking when viewing visual arts as opposed to sitting comfortably account for different experiences? Risk factors for Stendhal Syndrome, such as inadequate hydration and nourishment, would indicate a physiological factor.
However, first-hand accounts are the lowest form of evidence. How could I even be sure that experiences, which occur years apart, are the same? What, if any, was the medical or psychological explanation for what I had experienced? There is little medical literature on the topic, and it is clear that more research is required.
Here are some free articles for further reading (thanks to Catherine Voutier for finding these):
Palacios-Sánchez L, Botero-Meneses JS, Pachón RP, Hernández LBP, Triana-Melo JDP, Ramírez-Rodríguez S. Stendhal syndrome: a clinical and historical overview. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2018;76(2):120-123. doi:10.1590/0004-282X20170189
Nicholson TR, Pariante C, McLoughlin D. Stendhal syndrome: a case of cultural overload. BMJ Case Rep. 2009;2009:bcr06.2008.0317. doi:10.1136/bcr.06.2008.0317
Arias M. Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena. Neurologia. 2019;34(1):55-61. doi:10.1016/j.nrl.2016.04.010