Pauline O’Callaghan – Stendhal’s Syndrome

THE LETTER 31 (Summer 2004) pages 43-51

The name ‘Stendhal’s Syndrome’ was first given by the psychiatrist Graziella Magherini in about 1988 to a strange illness which seems to afflict a proportion of visitors to Florence. Tourists arrive at the psychiatric unit of Santa Maria hospital in Florence suffering from symptoms ranging from a strong sense of unease to an acute psychical breakdown. It would appear that the sight of the artistic masterpieces of the city, as well as the overwhelming sense of the passage of time in the buildings and streets, provokes these disturbing symptoms, which may include dizziness, panic attacks, paranoia, confusion, and often cause a profound shaking of the patient’s sense of personal identity. These episodes are usually of short duration, and benign.

According to Magherini, the necessary conditions include being a sensitive and impressionable personality who has undergone the stress of travel and has arrived at a city like Florence, which is haunted by the ghosts of famous people, and is imbued with a sense of art, death, and history. Sufferers are most often single females, aged between twenty-six and forty, usually travelling alone. All were well when they left home. Dr Magherini, who is also a Freudian psychoanalyst, believes that the art trip may be considered as a form of soul journey, an opportunity to gain in self-knowledge, but that it may provoke an emotional crisis, which not everyone is capable of coping with to the same degree. Her research into the illness has shown her that these sufferers are in fact experiencing in an extreme form something which ordinary travellers on art-trips experience to a lesser extent.

There are three different types of disturbance, the mildest being panic attacks and an anxiety which is somatized in the form of…

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