Travel may well broaden the mind, but it may also affect it in some strange ways; and tourists have developed a variety of symptoms when overwhelmed by the place they had always dreamed to visit. Some merely became dizzy, had palpitations, or broke into a profuse sweat. Others, perhaps not quite normal to begin with, become overly anxious, deluded, paranoid, aggressive, or suffer from obsessive ideas or depersonalization.
There has been a tendency to classify these unusual states as syndromes and name them after persons or places. Though they may not qualify as full blown medical conditions, they are interesting and should be approached with an open mind.
The Stendhal syndrome was so named in 1979 by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini. It is based on the experience of the famous French author Henry Beyle who under the pseudonym of Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black. He described in his 1817 account of his visit to Florence how on entering the Santa Croce Cathedral he was overwhelmed by emotion amidst the tombs or statues of Michelangelo, Casanova, Machiavelli, Galileo, Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. In the proximity of these great men, his emotion was so great that he felt as in a trance. On leaving the church he was seized with fierce palpitations of the heart and walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.
Dr. Magherini reports treating some one hundred tourists who had similar symptoms while visiting Florence and being exposed to so much art, especially at the Uffizi gallery. Some merely had dizziness and palpitations, others serious mental symptoms: becoming paranoid, hallucinating, and requiring treatment in hospital. It has been thought that the great concentration of sublime art and its frequent religious underpinning may have contributed to unhinging the mental poise of previously delicately balanced persons. Why this should have occurred in a seemingly normal, though perhaps over imaginative and sensitive person such as Stendhal, is not entirely clear.
Place de la Concorde
The Paris syndrome has been reported in tourists overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the City of Light. It has affected predominantly Japanese tourists—apparently disappointed that the idealized picture they had expected or had been advertised does not correspond to reality. Whether they were affected by what they saw or by whom they met is not clear, nor whether their trouble was due to cultural differences, language barrier, jet lag, fatigue, or a previously fragile personality.
The Jerusalem syndrome presents similar symptoms with more of a religious focus, triggered by a visit to the Holy Land. It has been reported in persons of differing denominations (i.e., Christians, Muslims, or Jews).
Note: Stendhal (Henry Beyle), though overwhelmed by the beauty of works of the Italian masters, was uncompromising in his criticism of bad art. In his 1817 journal of his tour of Italy he commented, “When art is bad, the critic cannot be too harsh; mediocrity deserves neither charity nor compassion, for nothing places our feeling for beauty in such immediate peril as the second rate.” (Rome, Naples, and Florence, 451)
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief