Book review: “History of Beauty,” edited by Umberto Eco

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Book review: “History of Beauty,” edited by Umberto Eco

Consider the difficulty of those who pore through the dust and shards of earlier civilizations. You pick up a small sculpture which, to your Western eyes, seems to depict a deformed and twisted body. It looks ugly to you. But how did the people who made it perceive the sculpture?

As Italian intellectual Humberto Eco writes in History of Beauty, the 2004 book he edited:

Every culture has always accompanied its own concept of Beauty with its own idea of Ugliness, even though — in the case of archeological finds — it is hard to establish whether the thing portrayed was really considered ugly or not…

Eco wrote the book’s introduction and nine of its 17 chapters. The other eight were written by Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele.

 

“Which canon, which tastes”

Midway through the book, de Michele makes this point:

For a painter portraying the Beauty of a body means responding to theoretical exigencies — what is Beauty and under what conditions is it knowable? — as well as practical ones — which canon, which tastes and social mores, allow us to describe a body as “beautiful”? How does the image of Beauty change over time, and how does it do so with regard to man and woman?

These two quotations go to the heart of Eco’s book which traces the ever-changing understanding of what Beauty means.

Over the centuries, Beauty has been defined as having proportion and harmony. And as being rooted in light and color. And as being an approximation of the true Beauty of the deeper ideal world. And as portraying monsters in a terrifying yet attractive way. And in the clarity of machines. And in Nature. And in what is not Nature. And in art as an object of faith. And in novelty. And in Reason. And in the overpowering, whether natural or human-made. And in Grace. And in what unsettles. And in innovation. And in sadness.

 

Ever-shifting

History of Beauty is a close look at the ever-shifting evolution in the way Western people have defined Beauty. It is an examination of the theories and philosophies of Beauty.

For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas argued Beauty consisted of splendor and proportion, and that included integrity. In other words, something beautiful had to have all its parts. A hand that was missing a finger was, by definition, ugly.

Later, though, artists found ways to attractively depict even the grossest of images, such as Satan simultaneously eating a lost soul while defecating another. Eco writes:

Although ugly creatures and things exist, art has the power to portray them in a beautiful way, and the Beauty of this imitation makes Ugliness acceptable.

 

“Moderately full”

The medieval Catholic Church saw Beauty as a road to God, using beautiful images of the saints in paintings and stained-glass windows as teaching tools.

Church leaders and theologians found the human body and the pleasures of the flesh disturbing and often sinful.

Nonetheless, the Bible had passages and even books, such as the Song of Songs, which dealt directly with sensuality, and, as Eco notes, churchmen weren’t blind to the Beauty of the body.

Hugh of Fouilloy (in the course of a sermon on the Song of Songs, in fact) tells us how females breasts should be: “beautiful indeed are breasts that protrude but little and are moderately full…restrained but not compressed, gently bound so that they are not free to jounce about.”

 

Meaningless Beauty

Over the course of 1,500 years after the start of the Christian Era, Beauty was thought to have meaning of one sort or another. But, by the Renaissance, the idea of art for art’s sake — and Beauty for Beauty’s sake — began to gain traction. De Michele notes:

[Peter Paul] Rubens’s woman (like Helena Fourment, his extremely young second wife) expresses a Beauty devoid of recondite meanings, glad to be alive and to show herself.

Similarly, he writes that an artist such as Arcimboldo, noted for using the images of fruits and vegetables to create portraits, was honored not because he followed Classical guidelines, but because people liked what he created:

[Arcimboldo] portrays a Beauty that is such not by virtue of an objective rule, but only thanks to the consensus of the public, or the “public opinion” of the court.

 

A gap

With the coming of the Baroque Era, there was a heightened interest in emotion, expressed through the face and through the body as well as through the setting. “The motionless and inanimate Beauty of the Classical model,” notes de Michele, “was replaced by a Beauty of dramatic intensity.”

Often, the changes in the vision of Beauty resulted in tension as two or more theories of Beauty were being followed simultaneously. De Michele points out:

Nothing expresses this gap [between Classical and Romantic visions of Beauty] better than the comparison between the extraordinary technical mastery of Ingres, which conveys a sense of perfection that contemporaries occasionally found intolerable, and the relative imprecision of Delacroix’s style, which expresses a striving for a surprising, exotic, violent Beauty.

 

A three-way conversation

Eco followed up History of Beauty with a similarly packaged book On Ugliness in 2007 which I found much more the interesting work.

Both books are built on three levels. There is a central text, co-written in the first book and written solely by Eco in the second.

The second level is made up of lengthy quotations about ideas mentioned in the central text, and these are from poets, philosophers, theologians, novelists and a vast array of other writers. The third level is comprised of works of art and culture that provide a stunning embodiment of the various perspectives of Beauty or Ugliness.

Each of these levels exist on nearly every page, and they form a conversation that, in both books, is fun to listen in on.

 

Visceral and rarified

For me, On Ugliness was much more enjoyable because it permitted the reader to tag along on Eco’s wanderings through the halls of Ugliness and up and down the centuries. History of Beauty, by contrast, was more limited since it needed to hit each major theory and philosophy of Beauty.

Also, it may be that Ugliness is simply more interesting. Eco doesn’t say that. Nonetheless, he writes in On Ugliness:

The sensibility of the common speaker reveals that, whereas all the synonyms for beautiful could be conceived as a reaction of disinterested appreciation, almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not violent repulsion, horror, or fear.

In other words, Ugliness is visceral. Maybe that’s because we are so familiar with it.

Beauty, on the other hand, is rarified. Many of the people in our lives are attractive. Few are physically beautiful.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

10.18.17

 

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