‘Stendhal Syndrome’ Investigator Dies

Graziella Magherini (photo La Repubblica)

Acclaimed psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, coiner of “Stendhal Syndrome,” has died on December 10 in Florence at the age of 96. She was the first to study and define the temporary psychosis that would strike tourists when seeing iconic artworks for the first time, especially prevalent in the city of the Renaissance.

The syndrome was first described by the French author Stendhal (1783 – 1842), who recorded his experience, which the symptoms of which others later described as a feeling of faintness, confusion, rapid heartbeat and hallucinations.  After a visit to the Florence church of Santa Croce, where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried, Stendhal wrote,  “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty . . . I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations . . . Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

Born and raised in Florence, Magherini received a degree in medicine at the age of 24 and started lecturing by 33. She was involved in reforming Italian psychiatric care, becoming director of the San Salvi asylum at a young age, and engaged in art therapy with her charges.  Subsequently, she began work at Santa Maria Nuova and became the director of the Department of Mental Health at the Florence Center, which aided both Italians and tourists alike. During her career at Santa Maria Nuova, she observed many cases of tourists hospitalized after being overcome by seeing artworks, and her observations were recorded in the book La sindrome di Stendhal. Il malessere del viaggiatore di fronte alla grandezza dell’arte (The Stendhal Syndrome, The Malaise of Travelers Who Come Face to Face with Great Works of Art). Since then, Magherini’s recordings of Stendhal Syndrome have been studied globally. Her work has enormously influenced the medicinal world and pop culture alike, as can be seen in films such as Dario Argento’s 1996 film Stendhal Syndrome. (Lyric Niv)