Absolute Beauty annihilates, hypnotises, acts without measure. Sometimes it frightens. According to the poet Khalil Gibran, Beauty is a force that strikes fear, that strikes at a point that is free of all will. There is a type of Beauty that is characterised by the aesthetic category of the sublime, which, with its Medusa-like face, petrifies and frightens the beholder, and which has found its most shocking dimension in art. Faced with the sublime emanating from a work of art, one can feel overwhelmed, victims of an unknown and alienating power that can generate states of ecstasy and hallucinations, giving rise to the famous Stendhal Syndrome. Its name derives from the pseudonym of the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, who first described the feeling of turmoil that struck him while admiring the fresco of the Sibyls by Volterrano in the Niccolini Chapel, inside the Basilica of Santa Croce:

“‘The tide of emotions that swept over me flowed so deeply that it is difficult to distinguish it from reverential awe. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I saw it up close, so to speak touched it. I had arrived at that point of emotion where the celestial sensations of fine art and passionate feelings meet. As I left the Basilica of Santa Croce, my heart was pounding, the life in me was exhausted, I walked with the fear of falling.

The Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini has given this flood of overwhelming emotions in front of an artistic masterpiece the name Stendhal Syndrome, explaining it as a kind of shock from artistic embarrassment that results from looking at so many works of great beauty all at once in a short space of time. It is evident that in whatever form it is understood, Beauty has the effect of involving everyone who is confronted with it, arousing a wide range of emotions that go as far as stun and fear, but which nevertheless imply an active participation of the viewer with what he is observing.

But how are we able to recognise the Beauty of a work of art? Why do we feel enraptured, involved, and carried away by non-figurative, abstract subjects, so much so that some experience Stendhal Syndrome? Is it possible to explain the aesthetic experience and the flow of emotions it triggers from a scientific point of view? Indeed, in recent decades, an important strand of research has developed, that of neuroscience applied to aesthetics, which attempts to provide scientific answers to these questions.

The starting point for these hybrid studies between science and art was the discovery of so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in the 1990s in the physiology laboratories of the University of Parma by a team of neuroscientists led by researchers Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese. This is a particular class of neurons in the motor cortex of the brain that are activated by imitation when they see someone else perform a gesture. In essence, these nerve cells reflect, just like a mirror, what they see in the brains of others. This extremely important discovery has made it possible to give a scientific explanation for a psychological characteristic of the human mind, namely empathy, which is precisely the ability to identify with others, to feel with others, according to the Greek etymology of the term empatheia. On the other hand, the aesthetic experience is also based on an empathic relationship between the user and the work of art: specifically, what drives us to linger on a painting, a melody, a sculpture is that quid, that “something” that we ascribe to Beauty, which involves us, attracts us, makes us enter the work, binds us in some way to what we are observing.

The hypothesis that neuroscientists have formulated is that when something beautiful – be it an artistic or natural work of art – attracts us and provokes an emotion, our body enters into a state of motor resonance and empathy that makes us experience the physical and emotional expressions it represents on our skin. Indeed, the aesthetic experience is synaesthetic, involving all our senses, as if it were an embodied simulation. To prove this hypothesis, in 2007 Professor Rizzolatti’s team carried out an experiment in which volunteers were presented with iconic images of classical and Renaissance sculptures, such as the Riace Bronzes or Botticelli’s Venus, universally regarded as models of ideal beauty, while their brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging. By applying an algorithm, the neuroscientists altered the balance and proportion of these images, making them less beautiful.

By comparing brain activity when the volunteers looked at images with their canonical, and therefore beautiful, proportions with those that were disproportionate, it was observed that when a work of art is strikingly beautiful, various areas of the brain are ‘switched on’, including the insula, which is the same area that is activated when we experience the emotional states of others, i.e., when we feel empathy. This experiment allows us to say that we recognise Beauty because we empathise with the work and the subject it represents. For example, when we observe Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas, we are drawn into the work because when we see the saint’s finger inserting itself into the wound of Christ, the tactile areas of our brain are activated and we identify ourselves body and mind, according to a process that Professor Vittorio Gallese calls embodiment. If we are then immersed in a museum room exceptionally rich in masterpieces, our mirror neurons are exposed to the risk of overstimulation that can lead to Stendhal Syndrome. This happens not only in front of the beauty of works of art, but also when observing natural spectacles such as a landscape, a sunset, the face of a smiling child.

But when the work is abstract, what happens in our brain? How do we capture its beauty? Once again, the team of neuroscientists led by Professor Gallese, in collaboration with the art historian David Freedberg of Columbia University, have sought an answer to this question by means of an experiment like that of Professor Rizzolatti. They showed a group of people a picture of an abstract work of art. A group of volunteers from different social and cultural backgrounds were shown reproductions of Lucio Fontana’s canvases, which only some of them knew, alternating with a modified image in which the cut was replaced by a line acting as a “control stimulus”. The results of this study showed that when looking at the artist’s canvases all subjects responded by activating the mirror neuron mechanism, i.e., with empathy. This is because the traces left by the artist’s gesture activate the brain in the exact same way as if we were performing it ourselves, or as if we were reliving the emotion contained in that gesture.

In the light of these studies, the experience of Beauty appears to be a much deeper process than we can imagine, rooted in the body and experience of each of us. On the other hand, Stendhal had already suggested that “Beauty is a promise of happiness”, as if to underline the intuitive, subjective, and emotional nature of Beauty, which can only be approached through one’s own feelings.