History of Beauty

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...

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Title:History of Beauty
Author:Umberto Eco
Rating:
ISBN:0847826465
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:432 pages

History of Beauty Reviews

  • Psychophant
    Mar 14, 2008

    The book originally was presented as a CD-Rom. Although I like books, I think the idea of the writer would be better experienced in an interactive webpage or digital media. Because a page limits you to what is in it or its neighbours, or a shorter or longer search for a glimpsed idea. Hyperlink and search functions really help to compare what is in common and to spot the differences.

    The book deals with the idea of beauty, and how it has changed through time and cultures, using works of art as th

    The book originally was presented as a CD-Rom. Although I like books, I think the idea of the writer would be better experienced in an interactive webpage or digital media. Because a page limits you to what is in it or its neighbours, or a shorter or longer search for a glimpsed idea. Hyperlink and search functions really help to compare what is in common and to spot the differences.

    The book deals with the idea of beauty, and how it has changed through time and cultures, using works of art as the only surviving yardstick of what was considered beautiful. Although the author has his own views, he tries to keep it hidden, focusing instead on what others thought, although the narrative gives a hint of which of those ideas he favors, sometimes quite broadly, but that is to be expected as he is a son of his own time and culture, so his views will be different (though still close) from mine.

    Its awkward handling, specially as it requires a certain level of involvement from the reader give it this relatively low score for such a gorgeous book. Because it is gorgeous, and a simple cursory read, looking at the images, probably will enlighten you as much as deep reading. But that gorgeousness detracts from its own message, because subject to so many beautiful images, how can you define what is beauty, if beauty is most of them? Which I suppose goes a long way to explain why Eco published also History of Ugliness. Because you cannot have one without the other. Maybe after reading it my mind will clear, and I will give it a higher score.

  • AyaSuu
    May 10, 2011

    This book takes a lot of stamina to go through. The concept is quite easy: each chapter contains a short description of the period in question and its understanding of beauty, accompanied by important artworks and primary literature. These chapters are often just 3-5 pages. Nevertheless it's hard to read (weird layout, at least in the german edition, and hard to understand primary texts without comments) and boring at times. It doesn't feel like a cohesive book, but rather like lecture notes put

    This book takes a lot of stamina to go through. The concept is quite easy: each chapter contains a short description of the period in question and its understanding of beauty, accompanied by important artworks and primary literature. These chapters are often just 3-5 pages. Nevertheless it's hard to read (weird layout, at least in the german edition, and hard to understand primary texts without comments) and boring at times. It doesn't feel like a cohesive book, but rather like lecture notes put together. Period descriptions don't go into details, but mention what's most important. What I really missed was an extensive analysis of the primary texts and artworks used. 3 stars for a good overview and great choice of artworks.

  • Atefeh Ahmadi
    Nov 28, 2011

    ترجمهی فرانسهی این کتاب رو گرفتم از کتابخونه و دلم گرفت از این چیزی که الان به فارسی هست. حجم کتاب سه برابره و پر از تصویره. یه سری تابلوی تطبیقی ساخته اولش از همهی ونوسها و آدونیسها که خودش به تنهایی جذابه. درسته که خیلی از عکسها قابل چاپ نبودن اما من نمیدونم چرا تابلوهای تطبیقی مریم مقدس و مسیح هم حذف شدن،صرفن برای این که حجمش کمتر شه و ارزونتر درآد؟!

    ترجمه‌ی فرانسه‌ی این کتاب رو گرفتم از کتابخونه و دلم گرفت از این چیزی که الان به فارسی هست. حجم کتاب سه برابره و پر از تصویره. یه سری تابلوی تطبیقی ساخته اولش از همه‌ی ونوس‌ها و آدونیس‌ها که خودش به تنهایی جذابه. درسته که خیلی از عکس‌ها قابل چاپ نبودن اما من نمی‌دونم چرا تابلوهای تطبیقی مریم مقدس و مسیح هم حذف شدن،صرفن برای این که حجم‌ش کم‌تر شه و ارزون‌تر درآد؟!‏

  • Coyle
    Mar 09, 2012

    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
    Jun 21, 2012

    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
    Oct 18, 2012

    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.

  • Jose
    Jan 07, 2013

    Absolutely disappointing. It's just another collection of selected paragraphs and quotes from historical and philosophical essays concerning Beauty and other aesthetical categories like the Picturesque or the Sublime, with some extra explanations. I expected it to be a new essay by Mr. Eco himself, but his presence and touch on the subject approached is almost inexistent or unnoticeable. Plus, a quite expensive book. So, if you're already into History of Art or Philosophy, don't even think about

    Absolutely disappointing. It's just another collection of selected paragraphs and quotes from historical and philosophical essays concerning Beauty and other aesthetical categories like the Picturesque or the Sublime, with some extra explanations. I expected it to be a new essay by Mr. Eco himself, but his presence and touch on the subject approached is almost inexistent or unnoticeable. Plus, a quite expensive book. So, if you're already into History of Art or Philosophy, don't even think about getting this book. Still, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the book's easy style and summarized vision of the topic: useful for people with no further knowledge and a will to learn a bit about this tricky concept called Beauty.

  • Ioannis Savvas
    Feb 13, 2013

    Μια εμπεριστατωμένη μελέτη της προοπτικής της Ομορφιάς στο πέρασμα των αιώνων. Μια πανοραμική απεικόνιση της αντίληψης του ανθρώπου για το Ωραίο. Μέσα από την τέχνη και τη φιλοσοφία. Ένα ταξίδι στον τρόπο σκέψης των ανθρώπων για ένα από τα σημαντικότερα αγαθά της ζωής. Η Ομορφιά μέσα από τη θρησκεία, την καθημερινή ζωή, τον έρωτα, τη διαστροφή, ακόμα και μέσα από την Ασχήμια.

    Μια καταπληκτική έκδοση των Εκδόσεων Καστανιώτη, με υψηλή ποιότητα χαρτιού και εκτύπωσης, άριστες φωτογραφίες έργων τέχνης

    Μια εμπεριστατωμένη μελέτη της προοπτικής της Ομορφιάς στο πέρασμα των αιώνων. Μια πανοραμική απεικόνιση της αντίληψης του ανθρώπου για το Ωραίο. Μέσα από την τέχνη και τη φιλοσοφία. Ένα ταξίδι στον τρόπο σκέψης των ανθρώπων για ένα από τα σημαντικότερα αγαθά της ζωής. Η Ομορφιά μέσα από τη θρησκεία, την καθημερινή ζωή, τον έρωτα, τη διαστροφή, ακόμα και μέσα από την Ασχήμια.

    Μια καταπληκτική έκδοση των Εκδόσεων Καστανιώτη, με υψηλή ποιότητα χαρτιού και εκτύπωσης, άριστες φωτογραφίες έργων τέχνης και πάρα πολλά αποσπάσματα κειμένων.

    Ένα κόσμημα για τη βιβλιοθήκη μας, με την υπογραφή του ανεπανάληπτου Ουμπέρτο Έκο.

  • Bjorn
    Apr 23, 2013

    It's an interesting topic: what is beauty? It might seem like a trivial question, but think about it: esthetics run through everything we do. Everything we read, watch, listen to, right down to the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the cans we buy food in are made to correspond to some standard of beauty. Where does all that come from? What makes us think a Rolls looks better than a Datsun? What makes Dickens a better writer than Stephenie Meyer? Why did medieaval Christ figures look triumph

    It's an interesting topic: what is beauty? It might seem like a trivial question, but think about it: esthetics run through everything we do. Everything we read, watch, listen to, right down to the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the cans we buy food in are made to correspond to some standard of beauty. Where does all that come from? What makes us think a Rolls looks better than a Datsun? What makes Dickens a better writer than Stephenie Meyer? Why did medieaval Christ figures look triumphant and baroque ones suffering? Why is Kate Moss a supermodel and Roseanne Barr not? Can something tragic be beautiful?

    If you've read Eco before you know he's good at picking up patterns, memes, ideas and how they mutate with time and context. So this is Eco the non-fiction writer tracing society's concept of beauty from pre-historic time to the 21st century, richly illustrated with artworks and architecture and quotes from poets, philosophers and novelists ranging from Plato to Wilde. Venus of Willendorf and Naomi Campbell, Apollo and George Clooney, Warhol and Tizian, Thomas Aquinus and Kafka, they're all in here. Inevitably, even at 400 pages, it becomes a bit of a coffee table book; it's a huge topic, and he doesn't really have time to cover everything (plus, it's all pretty Eurocentric, of course). But being Eco, what he does cover is covered in-depth, giving you a great understanding of how and why standards change and how they relate to changes in the world - the relationships between religion and art, between revolution and poetry, technology and design. Rather brilliant.

    Plus, obviously, the book itself is beautiful.

    Now I'm even more intrigued by the sequel On Ugliness; Eco has said that after writing the first book, he realised he'd been writing about standards, about conformity. What about the things that don't conform to the traditional standards? That's another doorstopper.

  • Kalliope
    Jul 22, 2013

    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.