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Overcome by art

"I was seized with fierce palpitations of the heart," a visitor to an Italian cathedral wrote in 1817. "The wellspring of life dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground. Absorbed in the contemplation of such sublime beauty, I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations."

That overwrought tourist in Florence was French novelist and biographer Marie-Henri Beyle. Like some pop stars today, he was better known by a single name: Stendhal.

In literary circles, he's still admired for his fiction. In music circles, he's still remembered for his unauthorized, terribly unreliable and awfully entertaining biography of Rossini. And in medical arenas, he provided a distinctive identifier for a psychosomatic condition: Stendhal Syndrome.

Officially named in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who diagnosed about a dozen cases annually during an eight-year study, Stendhal Syndrome has its share of doubters. For the month of August, teams of researchers are conducting tests on people visiting the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, measuring such things as pulse rate, breathing and blood pressure to see if the syndrome holds up to scientific analysis.

While that research is being conducted by professionals, it seems like a good time for a totally unscientific investigation into the possibility of some Stendhal-itis right here in Baltimore. After all, this city has some pretty artistic sites — just walking into the magnificent George Peabody Library at the Peabody Institute ought to cause a little internal tremor — and some impressive artwork, including pieces like those Stendhal saw on his dizzying, nerve-tingling Italian sojourn.

At the Walters Art Museum, which has Italianate gallery spaces and some Renaissance and baroque pieces that are potentially Stendhal-inducing, the only tantalizing report has to do with a work of contemporary vintage — but with an ancient twist.

Museum guard Dennis Cloutier recalls emotional responses to a 2009 exhibit, "The Saint John's Bible: A Modern Vision Through Medieval Methods," a project of illuminated manuscript pages painstakingly created by artists and calligraphers during the past decade. Cloutier noticed "people in tears in front of the art, and [people staying] at the exhibition for three to five hours, or returning to the museum several times."

Modern items have also been known to leave visitors visibly affected at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"The first time I saw it was during the Andrew Wyeth show in 1996," says museum guard Charles Downes. "I was at my post and noticed a couple come in. They stood right beside me for a while, and then the man walked away. The woman stayed looking at 'The Reefer' "— a moody painting of a man descending a lighthouse staircase — and got so overwhelmed, she grabbed me by the arm. And it was a firm grip. She shook really hard."

Downes also witnessed what might be the flip side of Stendhal Syndrome — instead of feeling woozy, a kind of super-animation.

"I was in the Cone Collection," he says, referring to the BMA's prized holdings of modern art. "A man got overwhelmed by the Matisse works and started running around and talking real fast about the history of the paintings. He was just running around all over the place. I could see some kids behind him laughing. I wanted to laugh, too, but I couldn't. I just kept listening to him."

Marcia Gregory, the BMA's docent and tour programs manager, has stories to tell as well.

"I don't know if anything I've seen could be diagnosed as Stendhal Syndrome," she says, "but some people I've [taken] on tours have had pretty profound reactions to art."

Once again, it's not the older pieces that have proved most stirring, but contemporary ones, including Mark Rothko's compelling abstract, "Black Over Reds."

"On one occasion, when we had fourth-graders here," Gregory says, "two of them said, 'I just can't stop looking at this.' They were almost mesmerized. I don't know if it was the saturated colors or what."

Another abstract, "Evening Glow" by Alma Thomas, caught the attention of a woman taking a tour. "She said her heart started racing when she saw the painting. Maybe it was because she had walked up to the third floor," Gregory says with a laugh. "It has a wonderful, dazzling blue to it. And that painting really is exciting to look at."

Gregory observed a similar reaction to a pair of imposing, mosaic columns designed by Tiffany. "I had a couple in their 60s come in," she says. "The wife was overcome by the beauty of the columns and had to sit down on a nearby bench; the saturated colors blew her away. She definitely had a reaction. I doubt this was the Stendhal Syndrome. But it was a physical impact. Everything in the collection has the potential for that, if you look at it hard enough and long enough."

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters, can easily relate to people who are deeply moved by art.

"I've never seen anyone collapse in Florence, or at Lourdes, where you might expect it, or in front of the pope," he says. "But I can understand how you can be affected by encountering something when you've dreamed about seeing it someday. For me, it was during my first trip to Europe after college, going to the Chartres Cathedral. All I had seen were black-and-white photographs, so that was a pretty powerful experience."

In "Saint Elvis," Vikan's forthcoming book on Elvis Presley, he mentions a less artsy version of the Stendhal Syndrome. "When I was at Graceland, I wondered, 'What the heck is this thing at the door?' It's a canister of oxygen for people who are overcome," Vikan says. He also notes the Jerusalem Syndrome, named for the way sacred sites in the Holy Land affect some pilgrims.

Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has studied the effects of music on the brain, a topic where much more research has been done. He finds the Stendhal Syndrome plausible.

"Consider this from the opposite side," he says. "Looking at something visual that's completely horrific evokes a response, so there should be a corollary in terms of positive valence. Being in the presence of a great piece of art, or the Grand Canyon, clearly something happens in the brain. You may go weak in the knees, or feel chills down your spine, or even faint."

Although people aren't collapsing right and left amid Baltimore's artistic treasures, there's no shortage of possible triggers.

At the Walters, Vikan suggests some works that could trigger the syndrome, at least in those predisposed to strong emotion: an anonymous medieval "Crucifix With Mourning Virgin and St. John the Evangelist," which hangs high above one of the elegant rooms, exerting a powerful sense of drama and awe; Trophime Bigot's massive "Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes" from the 17th century ("I think that would get someone's attention," Vikan says); and, on the opposite scale, the intimate dazzle of a Faberge egg.

Over at the BMA, director Doreen Bolger points to a richly textured abstract painting by Yayoi Kusama from 1961, "No. Green, No. 1." "When I look at all the different swirls, the thousands of reiterative gestures lopped all over the canvas, the effect of the emerald green on top of the black — like a black hole in space, I find myself sucked in," she says. "It's almost dizzying."

Were Stendhal to pop back from the grave with his old jittery self, he'd probably find another corner at the BMA more to his liking, where a Botticelli, "Madonna Adoring the Child With Five Angels," hangs in a huge, cherub-gilded oval frame. The canvas seems to emit a glow from within; the colors are divine; the warmth of the affection depicted is almost palpable. One can get quite lightheaded just writing about it.

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