Friday, February 11, 2005

On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea

One among my very few favorite fiction authors has a new book out. Author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum among others, Umberto Eco is an Italian professor of semiotics.

Here is an excerpt of the Guardian article on the history of beauty.
On Beauty is an encyclopedia of images and ideas about beauty ranging from ancient Greece to the present day. It begins with 20 pages of reproductions of paintings and photographs, representing an enormous range of cultural icons, from Bronzini's Allegory of Venus to characteristic snapshots of David Beckham and George Clooney. More paintings decorate the next 400 pages of quotations from philosophers and writers - Plato, Boccaccio, San Bernardo. Kant, Heine, et al. The book is arranged according to various themes rather than chronologically, although, given the fact that it begins with the aesthetic ideals of ancient Greece and ends with pop art and the mass media, the chronology seems self-evident. On the other hand, as Eco points out in his introduction, "this is a history of Beauty and not a history of art (or of literature or music)". He goes on to ask the obvious question - "why is this history of Beauty documented solely through works of art?" - and he replies by claiming that "over the centuries it was artists, poets, and novelists who told us about the things they considered beautiful and they were the ones who left us examples. Peasants, masons, bakers or tailors also made things that they probably saw as beautiful, but only a very few of these artefacts remain."

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