History of Beauty by Umberto Eco

History of Beauty

Now in paperback, Umberto Eco’s groundbreaking and much-acclaimed first illustrated book has been a critical success since its first publication in 2004. What is beauty? Umberto Eco, among Italy’s finest and most important contemporary thinkers, explores the nature, the meaning, and the very history of the idea of beauty in Western culture. The profound and subtle text is...

Title:History of Beauty
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0847826465
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:432 pages

History of Beauty Reviews

  • Coyle

    Really a 3 1/2 star book, but since that's not an option...

    This book is misnamed, really "dictionary of Beauty" would be a closer title, while "Umberto Eco's Musings on Beauty in a loosely chronological order with occasionaly quotes about beauty from other thinkers and a boatload of pictures" would probably hit closest to home. Undoubtedly the publisher shot that title down and stuck

    in its place.

    Strengths: Each individual section is fairly informative and interesting to read.

    Really a 3 1/2 star book, but since that's not an option...

    This book is misnamed, really "dictionary of Beauty" would be a closer title, while "Umberto Eco's Musings on Beauty in a loosely chronological order with occasionaly quotes about beauty from other thinkers and a boatload of pictures" would probably hit closest to home. Undoubtedly the publisher shot that title down and stuck

    in its place.

    Strengths: Each individual section is fairly informative and interesting to read. There are a lot of useful and interesting art prints, quotes that I likely would never otherwise have encountered, and thoughtful reflections on the various periods and thinkers of artistic history. I will definitely be returning to the needed sections (particularly those on the Middle Ages and the modern world) for review in the future.

    And if nothing else, it is encouraging to see a major modern thinker engaging aesthetics. That is rare enough to be worthy of attention and time.

    Weaknesses: This book has two major weaknesses, the first is editing. This is always a fairly irritating one for me, since it means that either the author or the publisher or both (possibly also the translator in this case) got lazy along the way and just didn't do their job well. If I'm going to give money and time to your creative work, you should at least have the decency to care about keeping it coherent.

    The second is that there's really no overall theme. Which is (spoiler alert- though it's nonfiction so I doubt anyone actually cares) one of the points he makes about Beauty, that it is no consistent through time. People's and cultures' perceptions of Beauty shift and grow and change from year to year, and region to region. Therefore, he argues, there is no (perhaps there cannot even be) any solid and lasting definition of Beauty. Beauty at the end of the day is relative, despite his claim that it is pervasive throughout both our culture and cultures past. Which functionally turns this into a 400 page episode of

    . Not that it's funny, but that it's a book about nothing. Or at least, nothing that has any transcendent value. If there is no ultimate Beauty, and it's all relative, why should we be bothered to read a book about it?

    Well, as I said above, it

    worth reading. But it would be more worth reading if Eco had articulated his own philosophy of Beauty and then talked about it in the context of aesthetics through history. In his failure to do so, this book is ultimately yet another postmodern disappointment.

  • Gabriella

    It's not really a book you read cover to cover, and I guess some of the disappointment many people may feel comes from them picking it up and reading it like that. It is a dictionary a reference, it should open people's mind up to further investigate and research. As someone said the book does reflect his personal opinions and musings, but just by flicking though the book many times I have found myself diving deeper into periods, artists, works of art, techniques etc.

  • Stela

    Even if I agree with most of the reproaches this book received (that it is more a guide than a study, that it is more a triumph of compression than of clarity, that it is too eclectic and so on) I have to say I really enjoyed it.

    Is this a consequence of my great admiration for Umberto Eco or of my dilettantism in art, I'm not sure (and I won't dig, so back off!). Anyway, I think the author completed his objectives, enumerated in Introduction:

    - to identify Beauty as a thing pleasing to contemplat

    Even if I agree with most of the reproaches this book received (that it is more a guide than a study, that it is more a triumph of compression than of clarity, that it is too eclectic and so on) I have to say I really enjoyed it.

    Is this a consequence of my great admiration for Umberto Eco or of my dilettantism in art, I'm not sure (and I won't dig, so back off!). Anyway, I think the author completed his objectives, enumerated in Introduction:

    - to identify Beauty as a thing pleasing to contemplate independently of the desire we may feel for it;

    -to establish the relationship between Beauty and Art (since Beauty was sometimes perceived simply as a quality of Nature);

    - to document the history of Beauty (only in Western culture, though) through art (because only the artists left examples) but not to write a history of art.

    Based on a reviewing of the great artistic movements (whose ideologies influenced - evidently- the conception of Beauty), the essay presents different Aesthetic Ideals from ancient Greece to nowadays, emphasizing the growing complexity of the concept of Beauty, from the antithesis Apollonian - Dionysiac as a very interesting antithesis between vision and sound, to the contemporary syncretism, from Pythagoras' abstract numbers and music of spheres to the prosaic industrialisation, from Pericles' ideal of harmony, order, measure, and simplicity, to "the orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty" which characterizes our times.

    On the other hand, I was amused to learn that Thomas Aquinas considered a crystal hammer ugly because it didn't serve a purpose and that Marco Polo, seeing rhinoceros for the first time thought they were unicorns (I bet Eugène Ionesco didn't know that!)

    Overall, not pretentious, beautifully illustrated (someone said, ironically, of course, that it would make a wonderful present), it doesn't aim to impress but to observe the evolution of a concept over a very long period of time. Hence the impression that he only grazed the surface of the subject.

  • Kalliope

    Reading Eco’s study On Beauty feels like visiting a Temple with very many chambers. In each room there are texts. There are also images, many of them too and of good quality and they are all photos of art pieces. During this visit we are accompanied by the talk of a commentator. He comments on the texts only. Not on the images. Each room corresponds to a period in the Quest of Beauty. In this pursuit we can also conceive each space as forming a petal of a different tone and shape, so that by the

    Reading Eco’s study On Beauty feels like visiting a Temple with very many chambers. In each room there are texts. There are also images, many of them too and of good quality and they are all photos of art pieces. During this visit we are accompanied by the talk of a commentator. He comments on the texts only. Not on the images. Each room corresponds to a period in the Quest of Beauty. In this pursuit we can also conceive each space as forming a petal of a different tone and shape, so that by the end of the journey we can see that this Temple has the appearance of a multi-faceted flower. And a beautiful flower it is.

    In the search for Beauty along Western history many questions have been raised.

    Where does Beauty originate? Is it in the things? And therefore is it made by man, or is it in Nature and made by god? If a god creates beauty, then what is this god? A concept, like Goodness? Or is it a being? If so, then what was his purpose? Or could man create it not in the things but out of the things? Who is this man (mostly man, sometimes woman) and what is his nature? Are all men capable of creating Beauty? Or is it only some – those who are endowed with a (divine) capacity, and we can call them ‘artists’? And those are the Artists – the beings who can create a (divine) entity – ‘art’? Or is beauty really created by the subject? Is it in front of you or is it in your eye – the shifting eye of the beholder? Can Beauty be measured? Indeed, is it proportion itself? Who measures those proportions? Does it form part of an overall scheme of things, the Harmonic Tutto? Or does it require another quality, such as individuality, and should therefore break the norms and surprise? What is its purpose? To elevate us to a higher, and ethical, or to a sublime realm? And if related to the human, should it be sensual, or smart, or witty? Does it have a gender? Or does it belong to the dominion of a particular gender? To what extent is it relative and needs its own context to shine out.

    These are many of the questions addressed by Eco as they were formulated by thinkers, and it is his anthology of texts, from Theognis and Plato to critics from the 1950s, going through Plotinus, Suger, Hildegard von Bingen, Dante, Alberti, Gracián, Hume, Kant, Goethe, Diderot, Baudelaire, Foscolo, Burke, Wilde, Pater, Duchamp amongst very many others, that form the backbone of this book. The copious and beautiful images are unconnected illustrations. They are not addressed by Eco nor specifically related to the selected texts. They form a background musing, colouring the excerpts, like in my review. For the book is conceived as an intellectual exercise, an examination of concepts. It is a theoretical flower then, even if the images add a veneer by appealing to a seen and experienced Beauty.

    Reading the compendium of excerpts, however, is somewhat unsatisfying and one feels that in this Temple one is just looking at the spine of the books stored in those inviting chambers. But they serve as indications for a later trip, without commentator, when one can stay in one of those rooms and think, not contemplate, some of those notions. And as map of the Search of Beauty this book is excellent.

  • Luís C.

    It is a book that is not based on artistic criteria of beauty, but the beauty marked by time, by the concepts, for what it was and was considered beautiful in every season.

    I think the author exceeds too much the beautiful setting, in keeping with the beauty.

    He didn't convinced me.Sorry..I almost give it up..

    It was only funny, cross myself with the various interpreters of the history of art ... But very little, very little.

  • Metin Yılmaz

    Güzellik nedir ne değildir hakkında kapsamlı bir araştırma Güzelliğin Tarihi. Fakat işlenişden mi yoksa dağınık gibi görünen farklı kronolojisinden mi bilemiyorum bir akıcılık sağlayamadı bende. Yer yer bildiğimiz tanımlamalar ve gerçeklerle karşılaştım. Bazen ise bilmediğim ama tahmin ettiğim bazı doğrularla. Genel olarak ise beklentimin altında ama okumaya da değer bir kitaptı.

    Tabi kabul etmek gerekir ki bu çalışmanın çok ama çok önemli bir öğretisi var. Geçmişten günümüze gelindiğinde güzel

    Güzellik nedir ne değildir hakkında kapsamlı bir araştırma Güzelliğin Tarihi. Fakat işlenişden mi yoksa dağınık gibi görünen farklı kronolojisinden mi bilemiyorum bir akıcılık sağlayamadı bende. Yer yer bildiğimiz tanımlamalar ve gerçeklerle karşılaştım. Bazen ise bilmediğim ama tahmin ettiğim bazı doğrularla. Genel olarak ise beklentimin altında ama okumaya da değer bir kitaptı.

    Tabi kabul etmek gerekir ki bu çalışmanın çok ama çok önemli bir öğretisi var. Geçmişten günümüze gelindiğinde güzel sanatın nasıl bir sanata evrildiğini daha doğrusu kötüleştiğini gösteriyor.

    Kitapta özellikle son paragrafın ilk cümlesini çok beğendim; "geleceğin kaşifi 20. Yüzyılı ve daha ilerisinin kitle iletişim araçlarının ifşa ettiği estetik idealini artık belirleyemez."


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