Historical eye of beholder: Umberto Eco – History of Beauty

There is a root, genesis and climax in an eternal disagreement on what constitutes beauty – and Italian literary Colossus knows it and discusses it in his comprehensive “tour de force”.

The notion of what is beautiful has likely been the most erratic and most variable idea in the history of mankind. Never constant, beauty has, for eons, enchanted and puzzled thinkers and poets alike, attaining a mysterious quality typical for concepts that are within our reason’s grasp, but still elusive. These aesthetical standards have also done a great deal for philosophical inquiry and have served as a guidepost for morality (the idea of beautiful = good has been prevalent for eons in the western world), psychological concerns such as egocentrism, susceptibility to the ideal form, even the traits of divine in its purest, geometrically most satisfying form (what is beautiful is symmetrical and vice versa, according to ancient Greeks).

One of Europe’s finest intellectual giants of the XX century, Umberto Eco, equally vital in the autumn of his life as he was back in his novelist prime with Il nome della rosa or Il pendolo di Foucault, provided his systematical, encyclopedistic insight into this centennial debate in the illuminating Storia della belleza (The history of Beauty / On Beauty) from 2004., reassuring the highest standards of art history remain just as present in the XXI century as they were earlier. This is no ordinary, every-day art-history textbook, though, but a lavishly illustrated delve into aestheticism as seen from the standpoint of the entire western civilization, no forms of art and literature spared. Separated into seventeen engaging chapters, each prone to analysis to the slightest details, the book covers a wide array of visual and written erudity throughout ages from Old World to the media controlled humanity and its tendency for conformism.

Eco, at his most profound, tackles the elements that constitute the highest artistic aspirations, such as Apollonian and Dionysian principles, the harmony through proportions, architectural and cosmological symbolism, the light and color in Dark Ages, wealth and poverty, the necessity of ugliness (which he further elaborated on in his following publication, Storia della bruttezza – On Ugliness), the reflection of beautiful in the concept of “impossible love”, the sublime in nature, romanticism, manirism, the knighthood, gothic literature, l’art pour l’art, the Victorian restraint, abstract depths, pop-art – and everything imaginable in between. Beside his invaluable essays and comments, there is a much obliged addition of excerpts and quotations relevant to the theme at the closure of each sub-chapter, the wise and helpful lines by the likes of Wilde, Rousseau, Michelangelo, Dickens, Hegel, Shelley, Baudelaire, Burke, Cervantes, Alighieri, Petrarcha and hundreds of eminent writers, philosophers and theorists more. Well-placed citing of the humanity’s greatests only goes to show how compelling and methodological Eco’s efforts were when constructing this colossal piece of work. This extends the discussion to the all-important historical context of said people and helps elevate the problematique into more competent areas than our contemporary narrative can even begin to ponder. For instance, in the chapter titled “Reason and beauty”, there is a wonderfully observant conjecture of Kant’s dialectic on light side of reason, taken from his “On the Beautiful and Sublime”, against Marquise de Sade’s meditations on its dark side, sourced from “Justine, or the Misfortunes of the Virtue”.

Author’s commentary itself is borderline-academic in its core, setting a tone for a “teacher’s approach” towards gifted students, of sorts; slightly (and positively) pretentious and reeking with information and annotation in equal shares, it requires a full attention, but delivers magnificently. The selection of illustrative exhibits in painting, sculptures, photos, drawing etc. is breathtaking and perfectly compatible with the according subject. Visually, just by skipping through pages, looking at the illustrations, is possible to infer quite a lot about cultural standards and evolutions – the classics are there, but so are some of the underlooked gems that really help put the beauty in some new perspectives.

The prevalent focus on the Western world is the only negative footnote that comes to mind when giving the final weigh-in of History of Beauty. Admittedly, from our standpoint and complicated European traditions of moral rigorousness and rule of church to the Age of Reason, these fruits of contradictions have led astray our views of what is beautiful and what is not, certainly more than once. However, eastern traditions have their own formulative say on the matter and it would have done well had it been included in the overall linking of theories and cultural paradigms of which the book consists.

Even with one such flaw, History of Beauty does not feel as an incomplete book. Eco’s in-depth synthesis of mutually opposed times into one elemental work is a success and a definitive glimpse into the rational evolution of a very irrational phenomenon that intrigues and keeps us in constant awareness today, perhaps more than ever before.

 

author: Andrej Vidović