It must be one of the strangest maladies recognised by medical science. It afflicts tourists who, after some exposure to great art, especially in Italy, feel weak and dizzy; some even have to be hospitalised.
The condition is named Stendhal Syndrome after the great author who underwent such an experience on his first visit to Florence (which has therefore become the locus classicus of the condition) on 20 January 1817.
I have often wondered how Stendhal described the incident. With any self-consciousness or embarrassment? Now I know. On a recent visit to the estimable Bookbarn, near Bath, I picked up a copy of Stendhal’s Rome Naples and Florence (tr R N Coe London, 1959) and have read his account. Here it is, slightly edited: Stendhal has just described how he managed to be admitted into a side chapel of Santa Croce to see the frescoes there:
“There, seated upon the step of a faldstool, with my head thrown back to rest upon the desk, so that I might let my gaze dwell on the ceiling, I underwent… the profoundest experience of ecstasy that… I ever encountered through the painter’s art. My soul, already affected by the very notion of being in Florence, … was already in a state of trance… I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion. As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized by 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.” (p302)
Scientists are testing the phenomenon even today and reckon that it is an authentic condition. There are several cases a year. I have not been one of them. I have visited Florence, and was moved by Dante’s chapel if not by anything else, and did not faint. Perhaps I am not sensitive enough.