“It hurts to look at you.” – Angela Chase, My So-Called Life
Stendhal syndrome, also called Florence syndrome is a condition where it’s unbearable to confront beauty. It overtakes your senses. It overwhelms you. Turns out being slayed by beauty is another disorder.
Symptoms can include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and hallucinations when exposed to great beauty, especially a lot all at once. It came happen when confronting man-made art, or just the natural world. The “illness” is named after a 19th century French author with the pen name Stendhal (real name Henri-Marie Beyle) who went through an intense experience in 1817 during a trip to Florence, Italy. When he visited the Basilica of Santa Croc where Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo are buried, he saw Giotto’s frescoes and felt a little something. He wrote: “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations. Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Sounds about right. That’s what happen when the average person looks at art, right? Or maybe this is just another disorder I have. There is a debate over whether this is actually a disorder, but it turns out that Florence does have a pretty big problem with people regularly fainting, and the staff at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova are “accustomed to dealing with tourists suffering from dizzy spells and disorientation after admiring the statue of David, the masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery and other treasures of the Tuscan city.” Having a city so beautiful that people just can’t take it is a pretty good problem to have.
Comedian Norm Macdonald suffers from Stendhal syndrome, and described to Marc Maron on his WTF Podcast an episode where he fell in love with the painting of a woman, and couldn’t bear the thought that the actual woman who inspired the painting was now long dead.
Norm speculates that he has these intense emotional reactions to things like art because he has trouble feeling emotions in normal life. Maybe I have a similar issue. I don’t regularly get completely overwhelmed and immobilized by art and beauty, though it has happened, but I turn to things like art and beauty and nature to feel things more deeply than I do in my regular life. In my interactions with other people, I don’t always go deep emotionally. I’ve still got walls up from childhood I’m not sure I’ll ever take down.
I’ve heard that some people are more “sensitive” to stimulation, and this can explain both the emotional protectiveness around other people and the emotional depth from viewing or interacting with beauty. When you’re interacting with people, sensitive people may be more guarded because of past painful experiences, but with art, it’s a private vulnerability that you can relish in. It’s a way to finally release all that feeling you’ve been holding back.
I do find that I get defensive around art, too, especially some really sad music, to prevent myself from being exposed to extremely dark emotions. I used to get off on wallowing in the darkness, maybe it did help me then because I was in a darker place personally (aren’t we all emo when we’re teenagers?,) but I’m not sure if that’s how I want to spend the rest of my time on earth. It’s a delicate thing that can be misunderstood when I try to tell people about my avoidance of certain music. It’s not that I don’t enjoy sad music still, but I guess sometimes I just don’t want to risk getting pulled into a mood I may not find my way out of easily.