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What is Stendhal syndrome and why does it mostly affect travellers?

My then four-year-old daughter would not talk for almost half an hour after it happened. This, from a child who talks so much, she even talks in her sleep. 


We thought it a delayed jet lag or possibly sun stroke, but when she did eventually speak, she said simply: “I didn’t know they were real.”


We were in Disneyland and upon finishing a stint in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, in a span of ten minutes had some private time with all the Disney Princesses (bar Moana and Mulan - still a sore topic to this day).


People can get like that when they meet their heroes or, in the case of Stendhal syndrome when they see, for the first time Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. 


"We've had at least one epileptic attack before the Venus," Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi, told the BBC.


"One gentleman also suffered a heart attack."


Carlo was 68 and collapsed in the Uffizi.


"I approached Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, and while I was admiring that wonder, my memories vanish," Olmastroni said. 


Across the country his tale spread as the latest case of Stendhal syndrome, an alleged psychosomatic condition brought on by exposure to Florence's many artistic wonders. 



The condition is named after a French writer who, in 1817, wrote of his trip to the Tuscan capital: "I was in a sort of ecstasy from the idea of being in Florence… I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart… the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground."


In 1989, Graziella Magherini, a psychiatrist at Florence's Santa Maria Nuova Hospital classified Stendhal syndrome as a psychiatric disorder. Magherini had seen over 100 patients, all tourists, who experienced dizziness, palpitations, hallucinations and depersonalisation when first sighting the art of such greats as Michaelangelo and Botticelli. 


They were suffering "panic attacks, caused by the psychological impact of a great masterpiece, and that of travelling," Magherini said.


"It occurs usually 10, 20 times a year in certain people who are very sensitive [and] perhaps have been waiting all their lives to come to Tuscany," Simonetta Brandolini d'Adda, president of the art charity Friends of Florence told the BBC.  


"These iconic artworks – the Botticellis, the David – they're really overwhelming. Some people lose their bearings; it can be mind-boggling. I've often seen people start crying."


Stendhal syndrome has cousins. There’s Jerusalem syndrome which can result in psychotic religious delusions and Paris syndrome which can send visitors into a downward spiral when the real Paris doesn’t meet their expectations. I just wonder if there’s a Disneyland syndrome…


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Published: 13 January 2022

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