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History of Beauty Hardcover – November 13, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 Loveor 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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 438 pages
  • Publisher: Rizzoli; First Edition edition (November 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0847826465
  • ISBN-13: 978-0847826469
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #420,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By David J. Gannon on December 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Dostoyevsky once observed that "beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man". In History of Beauty Umberto Eco provides an historical context to how that battlefield has changed over the past 3000 years or so.

This is a sumptuous, unusually high quality coffee table book. While its over 400 photographs are extremely engaging, the introductions and essays Eco provides are absorbing and just as illuminating as the pictures. Eco lists himself as editor, but that is false modesty. His writing here is excellent, erudite and informative and provides a lot of food for thought as one peruses the visuals.

As is to be expected from Eco, his essays cite philosopher that run the gamut from Aristotle and Plato through to Xenophon (though I did not see any Dostoyevsky references though that dark soul was seemingly compulsive about the mesmerizing qualities of beauty) and thusly provide an all encompassing review of differing concepts of what is beautiful by both geographically and chronologically.

This is a rich, beautiful book that will please the dedicated reader as well as the casual surfer who might flip through it.

If you want to upgrade the ambiance of your coffee table, this would be an excellent choice.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Only Umberto Eco could write a book that defines beauty through the ages of western culture as this one does. He looks at the great contemporary writers for insight into the great contemprary artists. Umberto brings Plato to the front to explain early Greek art, and brings in Hume to explain humanist style. It is a classical book that should be used in colleges to not only introduce people to art but to thinking about art and words. The color plates are wonderful. What I wish is that the Italian CDrom was available in English. One can see from the style used that this book was a great interactive CDrom.

Reading Umberto's insights and looking at great art..what a wonderful way to spend a morning at starbucks!
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Format: Hardcover
Umberto Eco is one of the world's leading experts on aesthetics and art, as well as being an outstanding novelist in his own right.

This work on the history of beauty is aimed at a general audience rather than a specialised one, and as such it abounds more in beautiful works of art and illustrations rather than scholarly analysis of art itself. However, it still contains an excellent history of the idea of beauty, and how artists through the ages have tried to implement somewhat abstract ideas, while philosophers and theologians have abstracted from art to apply artistic and creative terms to entities such as Platonic Forms or God.

One of the most interesting developments in the history of beauty was the identification of beauty with reality as it was in itself. Platonists identified the beautiful with the Good or the One, and Christians planted these ideas onto God. The notion that God was the most beautiful entity that existed, that God could be represented in art, and also that the cosmos in many ways is God's work of Art, expressed itself in many great works of art, poetry and architecture in the medieval period.

With the Renaissance, the concept of beauty became more grounded in human and earthly realities, and one sees far more focus on the beauty of material objects, nature, and people, as they are rather than their ideal nature. Art becomes more and more focused on the material world until the 20th century when in the era of late capitalism, art itself has become a consumable commodity and the chief virtue of art seems to be to cause pleasant feelings to arise in the consumer (something Andy Warhol satirises a lot in his works of art). Yet even in this period, artists still manage to create works of creative beauty which capture both the beautiful and the ugly, as we now see them.

This work is essential reading for anyone curious about Art and its history, and its relation to abstract ideas.
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Format: Hardcover
This is Umberto Eco at his most restrained, and yet he remains profound. The breathtaking range of photos and their sequence speak for themselves, and his comments add immeasurably. This is a book which I will not keep on the shelf, but instead on my desk for frequent reference, refreshment and inspiration.
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Format: Hardcover
This wonderful collection of art work History of Beauty edited by Umberto Eco attempts to answer the questions: What is beauty? What is art? What is taste and fashion? and Is beauty something to be observed coolly and rationally or is it something dangerously involving? With literally hundreds of reproductions of fine art works speaking to these questions, this book would be a joy even without the words. But of course the words tell the deeper story and attempt to give at least partial answers - sometimes directly, more often indirectly.

The chapters cover such things as the aesthetic ideal in ancient Greece, light and color in the Middle Ages, magic beauty between the 15th and 16th centuries, and romantic beauty. The reader and observer sees that the depiction of beauty has both changed and remained constant over the centuries. The symmetry, the color, the poetry might change with the art form while it is clear that the characteristics of the human bodies (both female and male) have not changed.

History of Beauty would make a wonderful coffee table book in any home except maybe those who find the naked body distasteful.
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