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Can Art Drive Us Crazy?

A rare condition is said to make museum visitors violent.

At the Louvre on August 2, security guards wrestled a Russian visitor to the floor and subdued her after she hurled a cup of steaming-hot English Breakfast tea at the Mona Lisa. Flung over the heads of other tourists, the cup and its contents scored a direct hit -- or would have, were the famous painting not shielded by a sheet of bulletproof glass. The Russian woman had just bought the tea at a museum cafe. She was handed over to police and is now in their custody. Having undergone a psychological examination, she might be charged with a crime, according to the Daily Mail, which adds:

"Doctors were trying to assess whether she was suffering from Stendhal Syndrome, a rare condition that causes dizziness, confusion or violent acts when an individual is exposed to art."

Well, I'd never heard of that in 25 years spent writing books and articles, many of them concerning conditions of the human mind. Then again, it's rare.

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Named for the French author Henri-Marie Beyle, who died in 1842 and is best known by his pseudonym, Stendhal, the syndrome is also known as hyperkulturemia and as Florence Syndrome. After visiting Florence, Italy -- a city distinctively replete with art -- Stendhal wrote in his 1817 book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio: "I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."

Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who worked for over twenty years at Florence's Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, identified and named the condition in her 1989 book La Sindrome di Stendhal, calling it "a complex crisis" affecting persons whom she describes as ‘not intellectual, but sensitive and easily susceptible to emotions" -- and who succumb "when faced with this city."

Citing such symptoms as breathlessness, panic attacks, faintness and temporary psychosis, Magherini recorded only 107 authentic cases over eight years. But the notion of "going crazy over art" has entered popular culture. In Dario Argento's 1996 film La Sindrome di Stendhal -- which, yes, has the same name as Magherini's book -- a young policewoman on the trail of a vicious serial rapist/killer succumbs to the condition when the criminal lures her into the Uffizi Gallery.

The Daily Mail gives other examples of recent incidents that might also have been sparked by the syndrome: Last July, "a 32-year-old woman wearing lipstick kissed a painting by American artist Cy Twombly on display in Avignon, leaving left a large red smudge. At the Orsay Museum in Paris a year earlier, a man ripped a hole in a painting by impressionist Claude Monet. The last attack on a work of art at the Louvre was in 1998, when a mathematics professor attacked a statue of Roman philosopher Seneca with a hammer."

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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