By Jon
My attention has been drawn to Italian research into the so-called Stendhal syndrome – the condition which occurs when an appreciation of works of art literally sets your heart racing and your head swooning.
It is named after the French author who experienced these and other, more extreme, symptoms in Florence in 1817. Apparently, it is a real psychological disorder which was first formally described and observed in Florence between 1979 and 1982.

Hence, today a well-respected group of Italian scientists are investigating the effect of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi on pulse, breathing and blood pressure. Per Artinfo:

The tests are meant to measure the effect the combined aesthetic assault has on modern audiences, who are centuries away from the Romantic dispositions that held sway in the time of Stendhal

This is a great piece of research – I am envious of the participants, and tip my hat to the researchers for coming up such a lovely way to spend their time.

However, a couple of issues exercise my mind.

First, the coverage of the research suggests it is aimed at establishing whether the syndrome really exists. But I’m skeptical of whether that’s actually their intention. A brief bit of research suggests there is at least some doubt over whether it is a genuine syndrome, so I imagine it is unlikely that there is a clear baseline against which researchers can compare their subjects.

The work might therefore say some interesting things about the impact of walking through the Palace and who it affects, but won’t confirm the syndrome’s existence on its own. It might suggest directions for further research, though.

Second, the choice of the Palace is entirely apt for historic reasons, but one wonders about the possibility of measuring the relative impact of different locations. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian writes:

It would be much more effective to put the heart monitors at nearby San Lorenzo, where anyone with a soul emerges stupefied from the sublimely dark and disorientating architecture of Michelangelo’s Laurentian library.

Jones’s motives probably include demonstrating his own good taste and depth of knowledge, but he hints at some intriguing possible developments that might follow when the results are in.