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Stendhal Syndrome: Overdosing On Beautiful Art

Imagine that you’re in Florence, looking at awe-inspiring, breathtaking works of art. If you suddenly start to feel that you literally cannot breathe, you may be experiencing Stendhal Syndrome. A psychosomatic disorder, Stendhal Syndrome causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, disorientation, fainting, and confusion when someone is looking at artwork with which he or she deeply emotionally connects. 

Also called Florence Syndrome, Stendhal Syndrome is similar to Paris Syndrome, in which tourists who visit Paris for the first time experience anxiety, dizziness, tachycardia, hallucinations, or delusions after they realize that Paris is drastically different from the idealized city they thought it would be. Another extreme form of culture shock is Jerusalem Syndrome, in which tourists suffer from obsessive religious thoughts and delusions in the holy city of Jerusalem. 

Stendhal Syndrome is not merely a modern phenomenon or #FirstWorldProblem. In 1817, a French author named Marie-Henri Beyle described his experience visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Beyle, who wrote using the pseudonym Stendhal, felt overwhelmed by all the beauty and rich history surrounding him: The Basilica featured magnificent frescoes created by the Italian Renaissance artist Giotto, and it was where Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo were buried. Emotionally, he felt inspired by the sublime beauty, but physically, he experienced heart palpitations and weak, shaky legs.

Over a century later, visitors to Florence continued to suffer from similar symptoms. In 1979, Dr. Graziella Magherini worked as the Chief of Psychiatry at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. After observing more than 100 tourists who were hospitalized after looking at art in Florence, she coined the term Stendhal Syndrome. In 1989, she published a book, La Sindrome di Stendhal, about these tourists, who experienced a range of symptoms that included anxiety, panic attacks, hallucinations, and even psychotic episodes—all after seeing renowned artwork.

Describing the patients she observed, Magherini said they were sensitive, emotional people who essentially "overdosed" on art. Because Florence has so much famous artwork on display, tourists tend to squeeze in as much art as they can in a few days. Victims are typically impressionable, single people between 26 and 40 years old, who are stressed by travel and may be struggling with jet lag. Of the people she studied who were hospitalized, about half had prior treatment for mental illness—although "prior treatment" could simply mean that someone attended weekly therapy sessions.

So why Florence? Some cases of Stendhal Syndrome have occurred in other Italian cities with stunning artwork, but Magherini says that Florence is the locus because it has the most Renaissance art, which is superficially beautiful and recognizable but often contains darker, disturbing details. Magherini notes that art can provoke subconscious feelings and memories in sensitive viewers. After a few days of rest, or better yet, leaving Italy and resuming their normal lives, patients usually recover fully.

Stendhal Syndrome does not currently appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Psychiatrists have, however, documented the syndrome in medical journals  and advise that tourists pace themselves in art museums and get enough rest in between viewings of Italy’s breathtaking, powerful masterpieces.

Bonus trivia: A 1996 Italian horror movie called La Sindrome Di Stendhal was about a serial killer who kidnaps a woman who is experiencing Stendhal Syndrome at a museum. The film’s writer and director, Dario Argento, was inspired by his own intense experience with Stendhal Syndrome as a child while visiting the Parthenon with his parents.

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The Getty Center, Surrounded By Wildfires, Will Leave Its Art Where It Is
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The wildfires sweeping through California have left countless homeowners and businesses scrambling as the blazes continue to grow out of control in various locations throughout the state. While art lovers worried when they heard that Los Angeles's Getty Center would be closing its doors this week, as the fires closed part of the 405 Freeway, there was a bit of good news. According to museum officials, the priceless works housed inside the famed Getty Center are said to be perfectly secure and won't need to be evacuated from the facility.

“The safest place for the art is right here at the Getty,” Ron Hartwig, the Getty’s vice president of communications, told the Los Angeles Times. According to its website, the museum was closed on December 5 and December 6 “to protect the collections from smoke from fires in the region,” but as of now, the art inside is staying put.

Though every museum has its own way of protecting the priceless works inside it, the Los Angeles Times notes that the Getty Center was constructed in such a way as to protect its contents from the very kind of emergency it's currently facing. The air throughout the gallery is filtered by a system that forces it out, rather than a filtration method which would bring air in. This system will keep the smoke and air pollutants from getting into the facility, and by closing the museum this week, the Getty is preventing the harmful air from entering the building through any open doors.

There is also a water tank at the facility that holds 1 million gallons in reserve for just such an occasion, and any brush on the property is routinely cleared away to prevent the likelihood of a fire spreading. The Getty Villa, a separate campus located in the Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway, was also closed out of concern for air quality this week.

The museum is currently working with the police and fire departments in the area to determine the need for future closures and the evacuation of any personnel. So far, the fires have claimed more than 83,000 acres of land, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and the temporary closure of I-405, which runs right alongside the Getty near Los Angeles’s Bel-Air neighborhood.

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This 77-Year-Old Artist Saves Money on Art Supplies by 'Painting' in Microsoft Excel
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It takes a lot of creativity to turn a blank canvas into an inspired work of art. Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi makes his pictures out of something that’s even more dull than a white page: an empty spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel.

When he retired, the 77-year-old Horiuchi, whose work was recently spotlighted by Great Big Story, decided he wanted to get into art. At the time, he was hesitant to spend money on painting supplies or even computer software, though, so he began experimenting with one of the programs that was already at his disposal.

Horiuchi's unique “painting” method shows that in the right hands, Excel’s graph-building features can be used to bring colorful landscapes to life. The tranquil ponds, dense forests, and blossoming flowers in his art are made by drawing shapes with the software's line tool, then adding shading with the bucket tool.

Since picking up the hobby in the 2000s, Horiuchi has been awarded multiple prizes for his creative work with Excel. Let that be inspiration for Microsoft loyalists who are still broken up about the death of Paint.

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist's process in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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