Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it also has a lot to do with the beholder's cultural standards. In History of Beauty
, renowned author Umberto Eco sets out to demonstrate how every historical era has had its own ideas about eye-appeal. Pages of charts that track archetypes of beauty through the ages ("nude Venus," "nude Adonis," and so forth) may suggest that this book is a historical survey of beautiful people portrayed in art. But History of Beauty
is really about the history of philosophical and perceptual notions of perfection and how they have been applied to ideas and objects, as well as to the human body. This survey ranges over such themes as the mathematics of ideal proportions, the problem of representing ugliness, the fascination of the exotic and art for art's sake. Along the way, the text examines the intersection of standards of beauty with Christian belief, notions of the Sublime, the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, and bourgeois culture. More than 300 illustrations trace the history of Western art as it relates, in the broadest sense, to the topic of beauty. Yet despite its wealth of information, History of Beauty
is an odd and unsatisfying book. Beginning with ancient Greece and ending with a too-brief chapter on "The Beauty of the Media," the text focuses exclusively (and unapologetically) on the Western world. Ultimately, it seems that "beauty" serves simply as a sexy peg on which to hang an abbreviated history of Western culture. Readers expecting a sophisticated treatment of the subject will be surprised at the textbook-like design, with numbered sections and boldfaced words keyed to small-type excerpts from writings by thinkers ranging from Boethius to Barthes. The main narrative (or perhaps the translation from the Italian?) can be ponderous and awkward. Only nine of the 17 chapters were written by Eco; the remainder are by lesser-known Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele. All in all, it looks as though someone had the bright idea of translating a textbook for Italian students into English, hoping to coast on the fame of Eco's name. --Cathy Curtis
From Publishers Weekly
This inspired book begins, after a little throat-clearing, with 11 verso-recto "comparative tables"—sets of contact-sheet–like illustrations that trace representations of "Nude Venus" and "Nude Adonis" (clothed sets follow) as well as Madonna, Jesus, "Kings" and "Queens" over thousands of years, revealing with wonderful brevity the scope of the task Eco has set for the book. What follows is a dense, delectable tour through the history of art as it struggled to cope with beauty's many forms. The text, while rigorous in its inquiries, is heavy on abstractions, which get amplified by stiff translation: "In short, the question was how to retable the debate about the Classical antitheses of thought, in order to reelaborate them within the framework of a dynamic relationship." The selections, however, are breathtaking—300 color illustrations, from Praxiteles to Pollock—and they grant the text the freedom to delve into their complex mysteries. Eco's categories for doing so (e.g., "Poets and Impossible Loves") and his historical breadth in elaborating them are creative and impressive respectively. Long quotations ranging from Plotinus and Petrarch to Xenophon and Zola allow each era to speak for itself, while Eco links them with his own epoch-leaping connections. Seen in terms of a timeless debate on the form and meaning of beauty, masterpieces like Titian's Sacred and Profane Love
or Cranach's Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey
seem, if possible, even more immediate, and related to our own amorous profanities and thefts.
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