Beautiful enough to pass out. These are not just a lover’s words before her beloved. For psychiatry, if the enchantment is caused by a work of art, it is a real illness: the Stendhal syndrome.
The symptoms could easily be confused with those induced by common illnesses such as a drop in blood sugar, too low or too high pressure, a cervical attack. But tachycardia, dizziness, sudden sweating, ear hums, hallucinations, loss of consciousness can also manifest when the eyes rest on a painting or on a sculpture of extraordinary beauty. This pathology should not be taken lightly.
For some, it can become so disabling that it requires hospitalization and long psychoanalytic treatment.
In others, the aesthetic rapture may coincide with a dangerous form of hysteria, eventually resulting in the destruction of the admired masterpiece. The cause? The distressing feeling of not being able to contain so powerful and different emotions than your usual personal experience. A sort of emotional flood, where the ego is overwhelmed and succumbs. In particular, it seems to affect sensitive people and, in general, who knows why foreigners. Apparently we Italians are almost immune to it, perhaps because we are a bit cynical, careless, or because we are spoiled by an ultra- millennial coexistence with the sublime. Of course, it is difficult for us to get into a museum and get out with nervousness for excessive aesthetic enjoyment. If we get nervous it is rather the opposite, especially in the face of too many pseudo provocations of much contemporary art. How many mega exhibitions in prestigious international venues, how many biennials in Venice, how many editions of Documenta in Kassel we have seen with the promise of a pleasure, then do not keep. To the point of feeling a bit of envy for the fainting of those poor visitors afflicted by the syndrome and hoping to catch their own disease. We would be satisfied even with a mild form, in order to feel a slight ecstatic raptus, to feel a shiver, for a moment to feel the butterflies in the stomach. Like Stendhal, on a small scale. The writer who visited Florence during his 1817 grand tour noted:
“I had reached that level of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the arts and passionate feelings met. Coming out of Santa Croce I had a heartbeat, life for me had dried up, I walked fearing to fall”.
Lucky him, we might say two centuries later.