There are a few possible scenarios which may understandably make you feel rather sick. The sight of blood, officially called haemophobia, may cause a nauseous kick, or, if you’re acrophobic, then looking down from the edge of a cliff may riddle you with anxious shakes. Unfortunately for some of us, the unease we feel during some uncomfortable situations takes a bit of a toll on us. However, there is one disorder that jump starts the symptoms that often correlate with these phobias.
Dizziness, increased heart rate and panic attacks are all symptoms of something called Stendhal’s syndrome. This psychosomatic disorder occurs when one individual finds themselves overwhelmed by works of art they deem beautiful all housed in one place. The first account of hyperkulturemia was published in 1817 by the French author Henri-Marie Beyle, known by his penname ‘Stendhal.’ He details his feelings of ecstasy, nausea and heart palpitations upon seeing the ceiling frescoes of Giotto di Bondone during his visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.
Stendhal’s syndrome… occurs when one individual finds themselves overwhelmed by works of art
It wasn’t until 1979 that the disorder was named after the French author. Dr. Graziella Magherini, who was then the chief of psychiatry at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, noticed how the symptoms ranging from temporary psychotic episodes to anxiety were prominent among the tourists upon experiencing the art found within the city.
I have only ever experienced two instances of the curious ‘art attack.’ The first occurred back in 2009 at the sight of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment located in the Sistine Chapel of the holy Vatican City. The second, happened during my month-long stay in Barcelona last summer. I had befriended two girls on my Spanish course, and, as lovers of contemporary art, we dedicate an entire week to exploring the vast art galleries within the city. Some of these days had been planned down to the very last second, which unfortunately made some of our visits rather rushed.
I suddenly found it difficult to breathe properly
However, on the last day of our little hunt, we decided to follow the recommendations of one of our teachers and pay a little visit to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in the heart of Catalonia. The arts centre hosts a number of thematic exhibitions each year, merging together a variety of medias such as paintings, films and music. The exhibition that was on at the time (Summer 2018) was the La Llum Negra, an investigation into the secret traditions found in art stemming from the 1950s onwards. I hadn’t looked into the exhibition at first, so when I was faced with the works of Antoni Tàpies, William S. Burroughs and then later surprised by an entire half dedicated to the art dedicated to the psychedelic tradition and found within the Beat Generation, I became overwhelmed. I suddenly found it difficult to breathe properly, felt oddly sick and was stricken with cold shivers.
Back then, I had only considered the syndrome to be a myth, so one can imagine my shock when, upon further research, it became my own reality.