In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

Art Palpitations

A brief look at Rubens' Syndrome

Peter Paul Rubens
In a previous blog I examined Stendhal Syndrome where some people when exposed to the concentrated works of art, experience a wide range of symptoms including physical and emotional anxiety (rapid heart rate and intense dizziness, that often results in panic attacks and/or fainting), feelings of confusion and disorientation, nausea, dissociative episodes, temporary amnesia, paranoia, and – in extreme cases – hallucinations and temporary ‘madness’. While researching that article, I also came across another condition that would appear to be related to Stendhal Syndrome, namely ‘Rubens' Syndrome’ based on a report published in 2000 by the Roman Institute of Psychology (RIOP).

The RIOP reported that 20% of people had engaged in an “erotic adventure” inside an art museum, and the findings were taken from a national Italian survey of 2000 people. Other places where the respondents said they had “erotic adventures” included beaches (43%), trains (22%), and nightclubs (18%). The report’s authors christened this state of emotional sexual arousal as ‘Rubens' Syndrome’ named after the Flemish Old Master who painted many sensuous nudes throughout his career.

The researchers claim that the Rubens' Syndrome is “a spontaneous response to the beauty of art and that those who are afflicted by it do not enter a museum with sex specifically on their minds”. The report also claims that art admirers are more predisposed towards erotic suggestion and that mythological sexual scenarios are more psychologically engaging than abstract art. Although I don’t doubt that for most people abstract art is less engaging on a psychological level, I know of no empirical research demonstrating that art lovers are more predisposed towards erotic suggestion (although it wouldn’t surprise me if they were).

I have been unable to track down a copy of the report and as far as I can ascertain, the results of the study have not been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal (therefore I have no idea as to how robust the data are, how the data were collected, and how representative the data were of typical visitors to art museums). The study also claimed that Greek sculptures and works by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) were more likely to lead to sex than artworks by Paulo Veronese (1528-1588) or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1698-1770). The psychologists also compiled a list of the best Italian art museums based on their “ability to awaken Eros”, the Greek god of love.

(If you are really interested, the best seven art museums for erotic stimulation were the Palazzo Doria [Genoa], Pinacoteca di Brera [Milan], Gallery of Modern Art [Turin], Accademia [Florence], Villa Panza [Varese], Guggenheim [Venice], and Capodimonte Museum [Naples]. The psychologist Dr. Massimo Cicogna was asked why these particular art museums were the most erotically stimulating and his response was that the ideal art museum is “one that is not too busy, so it allows for the easy observation of the other visitors”).

It would appear that the main difference between Stendahl Syndrome and Rubens' Syndrome is that Stendhal Syndrome provokes strong negative and (arguably) passive emotional reactions whereas Rubens' Syndrome provokes strong positive and active emotional reactions that some people feel they have to act upon. Following the publication of the study, one of the daily Italian newspapers Il Gazzettino reported:

“Who would ever have said that the corridors of the Accademia Museum in Florence were more erotically charged than the atmosphere in a discotheque? That Botticelli’s Primavera instigates hard-core thoughts and actions, and that the rooms of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice are more stimulating than Viagra?”

According to Professor Willy Pasini (University of Milan, Italy): “Cultural seduction has existed since antiquity. Art has always activated an intensely erotic mechanism – otherwise what sort of art would it be?” Italian sexologist Serenella Salomoni was also interviewed by the Italian press about Rubens' Syndrome and claimed it was more commonplace among non-Italian tourists than locals. Her reasoning was based on her claim that “Italians are expressive and less repressed by nature. For a more emotionally contained foreigner, it may take a beautiful painting to provoke strong, sexual feelings”.

Furthermore, according to politician, art critic, and self-confessed lothario Vittorio Sgarbi:

“To visit a museum, it is necessary to be able to love. Eroticism and the love of art, then, are perfectly compatible and interchangeable. Plus, it’s evident that someone who goes to a museum has considerable time available. At the end of the visit, there is a residue of amorous stimulation”.

In an online essay in a 2003 issue of the online magazine Frieze about both Stendhal Syndrome and Rubens’ Syndrome, Melinda Guy argued that both syndromes raise interesting questions about artists’ intentions and their audience’s response, and said: “Perhaps we could use these pathologies to determine cultural value: surely the work that provokes the most Stendhalian (or Rubensian) reactions is truly the most significant?" As there is no empirical or clinical evidence confirming or denying the existence of Rubens’ Syndrome, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of psychologist Bruce Melnick who in a short article for the Institute for the Psychological Study of the Arts made these observations:

“There is also something in the museum setting, apart from what is actually being shown, that conduces to erotic adventure. The people you see in a museum have at least one interest in common with you…They have come to the museum, like you, for some kind of sensual stimulation…And above and beyond these specifics is the general awareness that museums are places, set apart from the normal world, where we go specifically for purposes of aesthetic contemplation, where, therefore, the usual social rules do not quite apply. This awareness in itself probably fosters erotic fantasy and contact…To oversimplify a bit, we go to museums to look and fantasize. It's not surprising that some of that should carry over from the pictures on the walls to the people standing in front of them”.

 

References and further reading

Guy, M. (2003). The shock of the old. Frieze (Volume 72). Located at: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_shock_of_the_old/

Magherini, G. (1989). La Sindrome di Stendhahl. Firenze: Ponte Alle Grazie.

Melnick, B. (2001). PSYART archives: Rubens’ Syndrome. August 4. Located at: http://www.lists.ufl.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0108A&L=PSYART&P=1863

PervScan (2003). Rubens’ Syndrome. August 2. Located at: http://pervscan.com/2003/08/02/rubens-syndrome/

Squires, N. (2010). Scientists investigate Stendhal Syndrome – fainting caused by great art. Daily Telegraph, July 28. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/7914746/Sc...

Turner, J. (2001). Museum visitors in Italy list the works most likely to inspire an "erotic adventure". ARTnews, January 10. Located at: http://www.artnews.com/2001/10/01/pickup-artists/ 

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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