Stendhal Syndrome and the Uffizi

Where medicine and art align, from my friend Sarah (and the Wall Street Journal):

Stendhal Syndrome. The tendency to develop a rapid heartbeat, dizziness and hallucinations when exposed to great art seems like a great exit line for tired museum-goers. But it seems particularly prevalent in Florence, Italy. An Italian psychiatrist observed it in more than 100 visitors in the 1970s and named it after the French author, who described similar symptoms upon visiting Florence in 1817. More than 100 additional cases have been documented, including some in which a particular detail of a painting seemed to bring on acute anxiety. Effects are usually temporary.”

Anxiety like in Stendhal Syndrome isn’t the emotion I would have imagined a trip to some museum in Florence would impart, unless it was because of the crowds of tourists.

Florence is where I had one of my best museum experiences. I reserved a ticket in line exactly when the Uffizi opened on a Sunday. I was the first person in the U-shaped museum and rushed to the other end in a mad dash. Then I made my way through the galleries backwards, so methodically room by room I was alone with Rebramdts, Rubens, and Raphaels. It felt deliciously illegal and private–not at all anxiety inducing. Yet I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see a guard or someone. My solitude lasted for one glorious wing, and then I met the crowd again in that wide corridor that overlooks the Arno. Those Medicis knew how to live–being alone with the foundations of the Western canon was incredible.

I wonder what sort of hallucination art would inspire in the case of Stendhal Syndrome. Would you get drawn into the world of the painting, or would they reach out to you from beyond the frame? If I had only had both wings of the museum to myself, I could probably tell you.

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