Gazing at great art is not just uplifting for the soul but beneficial to our physical health, according to the findings of an experiment conducted in Italy.
A group of 100 volunteers were led up to the cupola of a vast basilica in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where they spent two hours admiring the cherubs, winged angels and bearded prophets on an 18th fresco.
The monumental Basilica of Vicoforte, near the town of Cuneo, boasts the largest elliptical cupola in the world and is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics. Before climbing the 240 steps to the top of the church, researchers took samples of their saliva and measured levels of cortisol, a hormone which is produced in response to stress.
After viewing the fresco, the volunteers’ cortisol levels were found to have drastically dropped, suggesting that viewing the art had a profoundly soothing effect.
“On average, we found that cortisol levels dropped by 60 per cent and that more than 90 per cent of the participants said they felt much better at the end of the experience,” Professor Enzo Grossi, who studies the relationship between culture and physical health, told La Repubblica newspaper.
“The idea of art as therapy is not new. But this is the first time that the beneficial effect of art on health has been measured.”
The cupola’s fresco was completed in 1752 by Mattia Bortoloni, a Rococo painter, and Felice Biella, a Milanese artist.
The volunteers were aged between 19 and 81, a mix of male and female and with different educational levels.
They were equipped with helmets and climbing harnesses for the climb up into the cupola, which soars nearly 200ft above the ground.
The sometimes disconcerting impact of being exposed to Renaissance genius was most famously documented by the 19th century French author Stendhal, who wrote of feeling overwhelmed by the masterpieces he saw during a trip to Florence in 1817.
The phenomenon of experiencing giddiness, a rapid heartbeat, fainting, discomfort and even hallucinations while gazing at exquisite art was dubbed ‘Stendhal Syndrome’.
“As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce (the basilica where Michelangelo and Machiavelli are buried), I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground,” Stendhal recorded in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.
Giuseppe Bertini, a neuroscientist at Verona University, said the drop in cortisol levels was not necessarily connected to the time the volunteers spent contemplating the splendours of the cupola.
“Cortisol levels vary during the day. They peak in the early morning and then they begin to fall. Since three hours passed before the first measuring of saliva and the second, it’s normal that there would be a drop in levels – regardless of what the people had done in the meantime,” he said.
“There have been lots of studies on the relationship between cortisol and well-being while people listen to music or practise yoga or do physical exercise.
“It is probable that looking at the beauty of the art did have an effect, but the result should not be seen in isolation,” said Prof Bertini.