Just in case it wasn’t obvious, I am a humongous nerd. So humongous, in fact, that I’m going to start this article out with a reference to a specific race of creatures from a LARP I play in (a LARP?! Oh the humanity!). So, fair warning. Now on with the show…
In the White Wolf World of Darkness games, the Toreador are a clan of vampire known for being well… pretty. They represent the seductive vampire, more of the Anne Rice variety than the F. W. Murnau version. Their clan flaw is an interesting one, whenever they encounter real beauty they become fascinated with the object and will stand awed and helpless, sometimes for hours at a time.
A good game mechanic, perhaps, but not a realistic flaw, right?
Actually, there is a disease that closely parallels the Toreador clan flaw. Called Stendhal Syndrome, the disease was named by Dr. Graziella Magherini, a psychiatrist in Florence in her book La Sindrome di Stendhal. Magherini claimed that over the space of ten years she had been treating more and more normal seeming tourists who had experienced psychological disorders after being exposed to the city’s beautiful art.
Some of her patients were stranger than others, with one woman suddenly became faint of breath and disoriented, telling people that she was a reincarnated Italian nun, while another patient was taken to the hospital in mental confusion and started predicting the sudden appearance of the devil in Florence on the morrow. Both recovered after being removed from the presence of the art in question.
But in general, the symptoms include physical and mental signs of being overwhelmed. Manifestations have included a disturbed sense of reality, sweating, euphoria, accelerated heartbeat, fainting spells, altered perception of sounds and colors, mania, anxiety, deep depression, and exhilaration.
Magherini named the syndrome after French author Henri-Marie Beyle, whose pseudonym was Stendhal. After visiting the beautiful Santa Croce church in Florence and seeing the frescoes of Giotti for the first time he suffered a rather interesting effect. “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 could see it close to me, I could almost touch it. I had reached that point of emotion in which one encounters those celestial feelings offered by the arts and by passionate sentiments. Coming out of Santa Corce, my heart beat fast; I had what in Berlin they call a nervous attack; life was over for me, I walked fearing that I would fall. ”
In general, however, the people who suffered from Stendhal Syndrome fell into a very particular pattern. They were educated individuals, typically from the United States or other similarly distant countries, who were emotionally undone by finally seeing and standing in front of the works of art that they had only imagined for years.
While Stendhal syndrome has typically referenced art in Florence as its cause, technically any city with art that is well known and idealized could have a similar affect. In fact Paris has been known to affect individuals in a similar fashion, although it seems to be Japanese tourists who are most affected within Paris.
Even more interesting, there seems to be a variation of Stendhal Syndrome that affects people who view, not art, but items and places that are significant religiously. Called Jerusalem Syndrome, it affects individuals who arrive to the holy land without any history of mental imbalance and then become psychotic upon viewing religious sites which they have thought about for years.
However, while Stendhal Syndrome sufferers might think that they are reincarnated nuns or experiencing strange visions, individuals struck by Jerusalem Syndrome typically takes on an extreme religious bent. Individuals hallucinate and start to have obsessive ideas or delusions, some even start to think of themselves as the Messiah, Moses, or other religious figures. Similar behaviors have been noticed at other religious sites, like Mecca or Rome, and as early as the time of Swiss theologian Felix Fabri, who wrote about it in his 15th century piece, Jerusalem Journey.
The real question, however, is whether the people who experienced these delusions, whether of the Stendhal or the Jerusalem variety, were as mentally balanced before they entered into their delusions as they seemed. Is it possible that they were dealing with unforeseen mental difficulties that viewing the object of their longstanding desires simply triggered? Did looking at the art in Florence put them in some sort of communication with their subconscious that they couldn’t have reached otherwise?
Or were they simply so sure that seeing what they wanted was going to change their lives, that it did?
Going to Pieces in Florence. Manfredi Piccolomini. Archaeology, Vol. 43, No. 4 (JULY/AUGUST 1990), pp. 64, 66-67
Pictures, Tears, Lights and Seats. John Walsh. The Antioch Review, Vol. 61, No. 4, Circuses and Art Museums (Autumn, 2003), pp. 767-782
Israel Prepares for “Jerusalem Syndrome.” Judy Siegel-Itzkovich. British Medical Journal, Vol. 318, No. 7182 (Feb. 20, 1999), p. 484.