By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
Nov. 18, 2005— Michelangelo's David, regarded as the world's most beautiful statue, can trigger mental imbalances in overly sensitive and cultivated onlookers, according to a top psychiatrist in Florence.
Graziella Magherini, president of Italy's Art and Psychology Association, reported the preliminary findings of her year-long study at a symposium at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence where the naked marble man attracts 1.2 million visitors a year. She said David can have a particular emotional impact on a certain kind of visitor.
"I've called it the David Syndrome. It causes mind-bending symptoms and affects mostly those traveling on their own or in couples," Magherini told Discovery News.
The condition is similar to the dizzy and disorientating "Stendhal Syndrome" Magherini identified in the late '70s.
Named after the French writer, its most famous victim, after he was overwhelmed by the frescoes in Florence's Church of Santa Croce in 1817, the condition causes symptoms ranging from queasiness, disorientation and temporary panic attacks to bouts of madness.
Stendhal gave a detailed description of the phenomenon, describing "ecstasy," "celestial sensations" and "heart palpitations."
"Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling," he wrote.
In the past 10 years, Magherini studied more than 100 people who had been rushed to Florence's Santa Maria Nuova hospital suffering from the syndrome as they were absorbed in contemplation of great works of art.
The artistic intoxication is caused by a combination of several things, including the stress of the trip, an "overdose" of beautiful art and the degree of sensitivity of the person, according to the researcher.
"We should not forget that a work of art is a very powerful stimulus and can stimulate memories in our unconscious, sometimes triggering a crisis," Magherini said.The David statue may cause symptoms similar to the Stendhal condition — "more rarefied, but equally mind bending," she said.
Interviews outside the museum and comments in the gallery's guest book indicate that gazing upon the recently restored 500-year-old masterpiece can cause heavy perspiration, rapid heartbeat, stomach pains, dizziness and even exaggerated reactions such as aggressive feelings and hallucinations.
"Some think that the statue is alive and talking to them. We have also recorded iconoclastic [destructive] impulses," Magherini said.
The sculpture has raised passions and controversy ever since it was displayed beside the main doorway of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in 1504, when political protesters threw stones at it. probably because Di Duccio felt he was too unexperienced for such statuary work.
After laying unused for 10 years, the marble was then taken by another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, who discarded it after a few months.
Michelangelo stepped in in 1501, and promised to carve a statue from the block without cutting it down or adding other pieces of marble.
Three years later, on Sept. 8, 1504, David was displayed beside the main doorway of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It remained there, at the mercy of the elements, until 1873, when it was moved to its present location in the Galleria dell'Accademia.
In 1527, the statue's left arm was broken into three pieces during an uprising against the ruling Medici family.
In the mid 19th century, it was damaged by acid used in cleaning solution, and in 1991, a mentally deranged artist named Piero Cannata attacked it with a hammer, demolishing one of its toes.
Magherini's study is backed by art historian and Florence's artistic superintendent Antonio Paolucci. He was not surprised by the emotions the statue can trigger: "This is one of the five or six most famous masterpieces in the world, a universal totem of art," Paolucci said.
Americans are the most sensitive to both the David and Stendhal syndrome, Magherini said. Italians, on the contrary, seem to be immune to the conditions, along with the Japanese.
"They are so organized in their sight-seeing that they rarely have time for emotional attacks," Magherini said.