The mental health perils of travelling abroad

I vividly remember my first visit to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, that cavernous museum lodged in a Beaux-Arts former railway station. After floating, enraptured, from one Impressionist gallery to the next, I turned a corner and suddenly found myself facing one of Monet’s famous series of water lily paintings. I’d seen pictures of this in Janson’s 1962 History of Art, and in slide shows back in art college classes, but here I was, actually standing in front of the massive original.

I burst into tears.

This spontaneous reaction was utterly surprising to me – but it might not be for those who study such reactions. This was likely, as Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini first described it in 1979, just a simple case of “La Sindrome di Stendhal” or Florence Syndrome. Looking at great art, she maintained, just might be hard on your mental health.  

Florence Syndrome is “a temporary condition that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, panic attacks, fainting, confusion, nausea, and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

But it’s not just art galleries or museums that can produce this reaction. Architecture often affects me this way; I once experienced a similar swooning reaction stepping into the Església de Santa Maria del Pi in Barcelona’s historic Barri Gòtic.  I also started weeping while watching spectacular fireworks one night at the Calgary Stampede! And, says Dr. Magherini, reactions like this have also been reported by those who are “confronted with immense beauty in the natural world”.

Florence Syndrome was described by the famous 19th-century French author Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle), who wrote about his experience with the phenomenon while viewing Renaissance masterpieces during a trip to the Italian city of Florence in 1817:

‘On leaving the Santa Croce church, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart. The wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”

Dr. Magherini observed that Italians themselves are immune to this condition, perhaps already over-familiar with Florence and fatigued by its beauty.

And a preference for hit-and-run, highly regimented vacation tours apparently makes the Japanese visitor generally impervious, too.

Although psychiatrists have long debated whether Florence Syndrome really exists, its effects on some sufferers are actually serious enough for them to require treatment in hospital.

Staff at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital, for example, report admitting tourists suffering from dizzy spells and disorientation after admiring the statue of David, the masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery and other treasures of this Tuscan city.

Florence is not alone in having a strange combination of symptoms named after it. Consider Jerusalem Syndrome, described as religious excitement induced by proximity to the holy places of Jerusalem; its symptoms usually resolve quickly on departure.*

Or how about Paris Syndrome, a slightly different affliction that doesn’t hit while you’re swooning over beauty or history, but because you are profoundly traumatized by your disappointment over the city. This reaction, especially common among Japanese visitors, has been described by the BBC in this way:

“Many of the visitors come with a deeply romantic vision of Paris – the cobbled streets, as seen in the film ‘Amelie’, the beauty of French women, or the high culture and art at the Louvre. The reality can come as a shock.

“It was a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, Professor Hiroaki Ota, who first identified the syndrome 20 years ago. On average, about 12 Japanese tourists a year fall victim to it, mainly women in their 30s with high expectations of what may be their first trip abroad.”

Is that a wee smirk on your face while reading this? Join the club. As Paris writer Chelsea Fagan wrote in The Atlantic about Paris Syndrome last year:

“This illness seems to have taken its place as the ’21st century gout’ – just slightly too privileged a problem to sympathize with.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Magherini is keen to stress that such reactions are not actually caused by any city itself.

“The fault is not in Florence, but in ourselves.”

None of these “syndromes” are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the so-called shrink’s bible published by the American Psychiatric Association. Not yet anyway.

Big Pharma might have time to start influencing the APA (as they’ve been so successful in doing so far) in coming up with a nice off-label use for an existing drug to be taken PRN to help ward off one of these Syndromes – like just before you head into the Musée d’Orsay.

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* Yair Bar-El, “Jerusalem syndrome”. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2000) 176: 86-90 doi: 10.1192/bjp.176.1.86

Q:  Have you experienced one of the strange reactions described here?

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13 thoughts on “The mental health perils of travelling abroad

  1. Years ago, in Florence, I rounded a corner and unexpectedly came upon some overwhelmingly gorgeous statue or other. I also burst into tears. I was deeply moved, but unlike what you describe, I was moved in a positive direction. Like you say about the Monet painting, I had seen the sculptures of Florence so frequently before, in pictures or tiny reproductions, and seeing it just out there in the street in all its enormity and beauty had me awestruck.

    Reading your post, I was at first surprised that anyone else ever had this reaction, and then surprised that among the people who do, it’s more of a negative event with panic attacks and nausea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Barbara – I too was surprised to learn that some people are actually hospitalized for more severe reactions than ours! My own reactions tend to feel overwhelming – but in a good way.

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      • Maybe it’s not the beauty of the artwork that’s actually affecting them. Maybe they’re exhausted from schlepping around all day. Maybe craning their heads back to see things that are up high makes them dizzy. Or maybe it suddenly hits them how puny their own accomplishments are in comparison to Michelangelo’s. Luckily I’ve been aware of how puny my own accomplishments have been since early childhood, so I’m in no danger of sudden medical-intervention-requiring epiphany.

        By the way I’ve been reading your blog for a long time even though I’ve never commented before. I think it’s great and look forward to reading it whenever it appears in my inbox.

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  2. What a terrific post! Except maybe the tie-in to drug companies. I think your piece stands on its own. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a drug exists; Ativan comes to mind.

    I definitely suffer from the Syndrome, often when I observe an artistic portrayal of the human condition. I felt a bit emotional just yesterday, just reading a review of Gabriel García Márquez‘s Love in the Time of Cholera (Garcia is suffering from dementia). I’d rather experience the overwhelming surge of emotion than take a drug to “combat” it.

    What really impresses me is your mention of the Janson book. I think I finally gave mine away about five years ago. I purchased it – used – in 1966, when I started college.

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    • Hello Dave – thanks so much for your comments. I too am surprised yet oddly moved by the “swoon” I feel during such reactions (reaching for a drug would just be medicalizing the human condition – except possibly for that minority who actually require hospitalization – can you imagine?) But mark my words: Big Pharma rarely wastes an opportunity to medicalize many “normal” conditions.
      PS You gave away your History of Art?! I’ve had my well-worn copy for 42 years and still love browsing through it. 😉

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  3. I have always been deeply affected by the film production of Fiddler on the Roof. A few years ago, I was able to see the last road show of Fiddler on the Roof, with Topol himself there to play Tevye. When he first walked onto the stage, everyone immediately stood and burst into wild applause. Me? I sat with my hands in my lap, almost in disbelief that I was actually looking at the man I had associated with this moving story for so many years. Tears began streaming down my cheeks and I was close to bursting out crying. But no, I would not need a drug to assist me during or because of this experience. To the contrary, I wouldn’t be robbed of my deep and strong healthy response to what I perceived as a representation of greatness.

    Big Pharma will undoubtedly wreak havoc with people’s good mental health. Perhaps there are a few who do have an unhealthy response to glorious art, but I bet they are few and far between.

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    • Hi Bev – it’s so funny you should mention your wonderful experience watching Fiddler on the Roof. I had a similar reaction in 2000 at the Booth Theater in New York City when Lily Tomlin walked onstage for her performance of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. I practically fainted. “That’s Lily Tomlin! That is the REAL Lily Tomlin!” 😉 As you said, it was a deep and strong healthy response – delicious, really!

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      • I saw Lily Tomlin, too. I have to say, Topol won hands down! Maybe you would disagree, but you would be wrong! Haha!

        Okay, someone can get back to the actual question at hand now. I’ve had my fun. At least for the moment…. 🙂

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      • On the other hand, I might have a serious reaction to being in New York City!

        I was born there but haven’t returned since I caught a flight out to Oklahoma at age 3 months. (Okay – so I was in my momma’s lap. I still caught that flight!) I was famous – well, a 10 pounds of famous, while in NYC: My great uncle owned the Stork Club, a world famous speakeasy of the 1930’s through the 1960’s, and we lived in an apartment upstairs. Dad was a “manager” there (in name only, I suspect). And since I was born while we lived there, the New York Times couldn’t resist a notice stating that I was born IN the Stork Club! A forgivable white lie, I have decided.

        The Stork Club was quite a place. There’s a book out now, titled Stork Club with all my uncle Sherman Billingsley’s inflammatory notes, the Mafia’s involvement, the bugging, even Edgar Hoover’s table(!), and the like in it. The fascinating details were provided by one of his daughters or granddaughters, so that piece of history wouldn’t be lost. The library where I live – on the west coast – has a copy, so maybe yours does, too.

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  4. I stumbled onto this blog while researching what I experience when communing with nature. I had heard of Florence Syndrome….which I experience mildly….but the same thing happens when I leave the city…a deeply profound emotional JOY…..must be time for country living.

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    • Thanks for your perspective, Michele. I too have similar reactions out in nature, and I read recently that “blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the level of stress hormones all decrease faster in natural settings.” (Finnish Forest Research Institute).

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