In Italy, the magnetism of museums is irresistible. Last June the Roman Institute of Psychology released the results of a national study involving 2,000 visitors that found 20 percent of them had embarked on an “erotic adventure” in a museum. Also according to the study, a Caravaggio painting or a Greek sculpture is more likely to lead to sex than works by Tiepolo or Veronese. The experts have even compiled a hit parade of Italian museums, listing the institutions in order of their ability to awaken Eros. This state of emotional arousal has been called the Rubens Syndrome, a term derived from the sensuous, superannuated nudes painted by the Flemish Old Master.
“Cultural seduction has existed since antiquity,” says Roman psychologist Willy Pasini. “Art has always activated an intensely erotic mechanism—otherwise what sort of art would it be?” Meanwhile, the sexologist Serenella Salomoni believes that the Rubens Syndrome is more common among foreigners than locals. She hypothesizes that this is because Italians are expressive and less repressed by nature. For a more emotionally contained foreigner, it may take a beautiful painting to provoke strong, sexual feelings.
Statistics show that as desirable pickup spots, museums rank higher than nightclubs (where 18 percent of respondents reported encounters) and are surpassed only by trains (22 percent) and beaches (43 percent). Reaction to the report has been swift. A lead article in the Italian daily Il Gazzettino exclaimed: “Who would ever have said that the corridors of the Accademia Museum in Florence were more erotically charged than the atmosphere in a discotheque? That Botticelli’s Primavera instigates hard-core thoughts and actions, and that the rooms of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice are more stimulating than Viagra?”
The researchers, who completed the project last summer, say that the Rubens Syndrome is a spontaneous response to the beauty of art and that those who are afflicted by it do not enter a museum with sex specifically on their minds. The report observes that a viewer calmly taking in a work of art is particularly predisposed to erotic suggestion, and unsurprisingly, classical scenes depicting mythological romps hold greater sway than abstract pictures.
This isn’t the first examination of the emotional response to art to have been undertaken in Italy. In 1989, Professor Graziella Magherini, a Florentine psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, made her name with the publication of The Stendhal Syndrome, addressing clinical instances of queasiness, disorientation, heightened sensitivity, and panic in people confronted by great works of art or architecture. Some skeptics have attributed the Stendhal Syndrome to fatigue in the age of mass tourism. But the basic difference between the Rubens Syndrome and its nobler forebear is simple—while Stendhal merely makes you swoon, Rubens makes you go out and act on your feelings.
Suddenly the terms art lover and museum benefactor take on a different meaning. Think of the audacious opening scene in Brian De Palma’s 1980 film Dressed to Kill, in which Angie Dickinson becomes infatuated with an enigmatic gentleman while visiting a museum. She follows him silently through room after room of 20th-century masterpieces, growing increasingly manic in the process. A taxi ride to his apartment is followed by a passionate tryst, which ends very badly for her, though through no fault of the art.
According to the controversial art critic and politician Vittorio Sgarbi, a man who often talks about his sexual conquests: “To visit a museum, it is necessary to be able to love. Eroticism and the love of art, then, are perfectly compatible and interchangeable. Plus, it’s evident that someone who goes to a museum has considerable time available. At the end of the visit, there is a residue of amorous stimulation.”
Holding first place in the Italian hit parade of stimulating museums is the Palazzo Doria in Genoa, followed by the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan and the Gallery of Modern Art in Turin. The Accademia in Florence, the Villa Panza in Varese, the Guggenheim in Venice, and the Capodimonte Museum in Naples also rate high. Why these museums and not others? The psychologist Massimo Cicogna believes that the ideal museum is one that is “not too busy, so it allows for the easy observation of the other visitors.”
Rome is the winning city in the erotic-art stakes, with the Galleria Borghese and Vittoriano museums in the top ten, plus a special mention for the statues Hercules and The Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museums. An unnamed security guard from this last institution was quoted as saying, “Certainly, I often see affectionate gestures and also much more in these rooms, but this doesn’t surprise me. Just think of the incredible eroticism of The Dying Gaul. It’s easy to see why people can’t remain indifferent.”
Jonathan Turner is a Rome correspondent for ARTnews.