Why Mona Lisa Makes You Moan

We had spent the day at the Vatican, eavesdropping as tour guides explained how Michelangelo fudged the proportions on the Pietà , and were heading out for dinner when I started feeling sick. Had we been anywhere else, I would have chalked it up to too much pizza for lunch. But I was in Italy, and I'd been looking at art. Clearly I had Stendhal syndrome.

Stendhal syndrome isn't included in the draft version of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, released last month, but with proposed additions including "apathy syndrome" and Internet addiction, it's probably only a matter of time. The affliction takes its name from the 19th-century French writer, who was overcome after visiting Florence's Basilica di Santa Croce. In 1989 an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini published La Sindrome di Stendhal, describing more than 100 tourists who suffered dizziness and heart palpitations (some requiring hospitalization) after seeing the Florentine sights. According to Magherini, great art can make you sick.

Maybe I wasn't suffering a textbook case of Stendhal syndrome: I was in Rome, not Florence, and instead of swooning dramatically, I just had a stomachache. But I wanted to have Stendhal syndrome. The idea that one can be incapacitated by beauty is irresistible. In Chuck Palahniuk's novel Diary, a group of people paralyzed by paintings are killed by a fire at the exhibition. In the movie The Stendhal Syndrome, the hero pursues a serial rapist into Florence's Uffizi Gallery and promptly collapses, overwhelmed by the Caravaggios.

A Stendhal syndrome–like experience is the implicit promise in travel to foreign cities—otherwise, why not just go to the beach? Our senses, dulled by routine, will be reawakened in new surroundings. We'll drink in the beauty until we become intoxicated. In search of this rapture we dutifully visit every museum, gallery, and historic site in our guidebooks. And we do experience a version of Stendhal syndrome. We get tired and cranky, our vision blurs, we want to sit down. But should we really blame the art?

Two centuries after the heyday of the Grand Tour, in which young Brits of means were led by tutors on a strict itinerary of the highlights of European art and antiquity, we still cling to the idea that travel to foreign countries consists of sights that need to be seen. We return home exhausted and enervated, but satisfied that we've ticked the boxes on our list. Mona Lisa, check. Taj Mahal, check. Thank God that's done.

Stendhal visited Florence in 1817: maybe he was suffering Grand Tour pressure to have a properly edifying travel experience. But what actually happened? He writes, "On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall." Life draining out of him? Fearing a fall? Sounds more like low blood sugar than aesthetic rapture.

The next day we wandered around Rome, climbing a hill with a view of the city. That afternoon we drank cappuccino on a side street off the Piazza Navona as the sun set. Later we crossed the river in search of dinner, and I didn't feel sick at all.