History of Beauty Hardcover – Nov 13 2004
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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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Given the sophistication of Eco's celebrated novels, the most recent being Baudolino (2002), and his scholarly work in semiotics, readers will expect his "review of ideas of Beauty over the centuries," as he so modestly characterizes this brimming and provocative volume, to be at once intellectually elaborate and great fun, and, indeed, it is. Focused primarily on the human form as depicted in works of art, beginning with the ancient Greeks and striding confidently into the age of the machine; elegantly designed and, yes, beautifully illustrated, Eco's mapping of our ever-changing definition of beauty draws on philosophy, theology, poetry, and science as he tracks beauty's permutations under the influence of ideas, mysticism, social upheaval, economics, politics, and technological innovation. A lover of language as well as image, Eco showcases literary beauty in the clarion writings he so judiciously excerpts. Erudite and ardent, Eco contemplates the complex relationship between nature and art, beauty and love, and vigorously explicates depictions of ugliness, without which our sense of beauty would not exist. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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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.
Reading Umberto's insights and looking at great art..what a wonderful way to spend a morning at starbucks!
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.
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.