7 (2004), Nr.4/Dezember


1. Umberto Eco (Hg.), Die Geschichte der Schönheit, übers. v. Friederike Hausmann/Martin Pfeiffer, München/Wien: Carl Hanser 2004, 440 Seiten, € 41,10 (On Beauty. A History of a Western Idea, transl. by Alastair McEwen, New York-NY: Rizzoli International Publ./London: Secker & Warburg 2004, 432 pages, $ 40, £ 21.00). 26761 Characters.



It is Jeff Koons’s 1989 triumphant simultaneous triple gallery exhibition in Chicago, New York and Cologne with spectacular sculpture in editions of three thatv comes to my mind when seeing Bronzino’s Eleonora of Toledo smile from the sleeve of Umberto Eco’s book „History of Beauty“ published simultaneously in countries all over the world in 2004. Of course it was the other way round: Koons adopted marketing strategies that had been common to the book or movie market for quite some time and were not applied to the art market before (compare: Thomas Zaunschirm, Kunst als Sündenfall. Die Tabuverletzungen des Jeff Koons, = Quellen zur Kunst 3, Freiburg i. Br.: Rombach 1996). Yet it still is somewhat unusual to publish a more or less scientific essay and have it translated before the book is published into the original Italian language itself. In the case of famous author Eco who shares with Koons a specific sense of beauty the marketing procedure included a preprint in form of a CD-ROM delivered by Motta On Line s.r.l. in 2002. It shows an author as producer and his publishers who are well aware of the digital age potentials.


Eco’s interest in the history of aesthetic theory reaches back beyond the late 1980ies when he published a „History of Medieval Aesthetics“. For it was the history of philosophical aesthetics that Eco started with already as a student. The reasons for doing so might have been historical besides personal. It was the ancient including medieval philosophy after 1945 that seemed to be unavailable - because seemingly too far away - and modern philosophy (including contemporary Crocean idealist philosophy) discredited by the tragedy of the two world wars philosophy could not prevent from. When he began to study what remained for 1932 born Eco was a strong belief in ancient Greek intellectual traditions that especially in Italy merged with Christian thought along the painful interrelated European developmental processes of the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire. This development resulted in Italy’s rich intellectual culture from Saint Augustin to Dante only to run into her early capitalist town states that founded the doubly bound retrospect/prospect structure called renaissance. However this epoch in its turn provided the soil for exactly those modern times in philosophy - the steps from Galilei to Bacon and Descartes and further on - that must have seemed exhausted for Eco’s generation. As for the neorealist movie makers of that time like Roberto Rossellini there must have been the feeling of an urge to cope with premodern tradition (Rossellini’s „Francesco, giullare di dio“ 1949) under the premises of a theoretical avant-garde that was a must to start anew in 1945’s destroyed Europe (Rossellini’s „Germania, anno zero“ 1947/48; long excerpts of both films now available in Martin Scorsese’s splendid 240 minutes neorealist movie documentary „Il mio viaggio in Italia“ of 2001).


Eco did it his way. Young as he was, I take it, he obsessively read the contemporary literature available to him. At least this is indicated several times in Eco’s thesis „Il problema estetico in San Tommaso“. This book length study was written with philosopher and esthetician Luigi Pareyson at Università Torino and finished in 1954 and published 1956 as Studi di estetica 2 by Pareyson-coedited post World War II journal „Filosofia“, however translated into English only as late as in 1988. In this book Eco shows an interest in Marxist film aesthetics like the number „Del verosimile filmico“ edited by the journal Filmcritica or Galvano della Volpe’s „Da Pudovkin a Malenkow“ published in the Rivista del cinema italiano. Yet it seems to have been more important for Eco taking hold of two of Italian resident James Joyce’s books that obviously contributed to Eco’s decision to write a thesis about Thomas Aquinas. In it Eco explicitly discusses Joyce’s references to Aquinas as made in „Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“ (Italian 1943) and „Stephen Hero“ (Italian 1950).


According to Joyce (and Eco) Thomas emphasized the integrity and wholeness of the aesthetic image as well as the vagueness of clarity giving way to artistic discoveries as representation of the divine design in all things making the aesthetic image universal and thereby revealing the supreme quality of the quidditas that provides light as an aesthetic pleasure. As discussed at length in the central chapter of Eco’s book integritas and claritas together with proportio are Aquinas’s three formal criteria of the beautiful. Including a remark on Joris K. Huysman’s book „La cathédrale“ (1908) Eco sheds light on Thomas’s applications of these criteria to human beauty, sculpture, musical forms, games, and symbolic vision finally arriving - with Lukács? - at the aesthetic particularity and the ontological consistence of artistic form as developed against the background of Pareyson’s theory of formatività that were published in portions by early 1950ies „Filosofia“ - artistic form, but not art since Thomas grew up enjoying the musical education of Montecassino’s flourishing schola cantorum using the method of Guido d’Arezzo and studied in Naples of course in a school of liberal arts that still were far away from the modern system of the arts as we know and still live with it. Eco’s primary concern is to show that Thomas is focused on aesthetic vision under the premise of beauty not as subjective but transcendental. From the outset Eco is opposed to influential aesthetician Benedetto Croce and his reservations against medieval aesthetics. Against Croce, Eco says, the aesthetic needs to be seperated from the artistic thereby meaning an aesthetic that also includes the value of beauty when realized, which is alienated into art („manifestazioni di bellezza estranee all’arte“, p.10).


Long before his evolvement as a novelist and semiotician Eco started out philosophically as an aesthetician. His thesis on San Tommaso was followed by articles on „Poetica and estetica in J. Joyce“ in Riviste di estetica, vol.2, 1957, „Problemi di estetica indiana“ in Riviste di estetica, vol.3, 1958, and on „Storiografia medievale estetica teorica“, in Filosofia 1961, the latter two republished in Eco’s essay collection „La definizione dell’arte“ (Milano: Mursia 1968). Already in 1959 appeared „Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale“ (Milano: Marzorati 1959 as the first of a four volume series on „Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica“; second edition in English 1986, German 1991), a book that focuses on pre-renaissance and sort of pre-pictural(painting) scholastic times and is structured a lot by means of the categorial framework as developed with Thomas Aquinas and keeping in mind the unavailability of nature by art as expressed for instance in Jean de Meung’s Roman de la Rose. Not to forget to mention another important book that provided Eco with knowledge of technology, carefully selecting and editing material and the experience of making an illustrated reference work: U. Eco/G. B. Zorzoli, Zum Nutzen des Menschen - Die großen Erfindungen im Bild der Geschichte, = Panoramen der Geschichte 5, Bern/Stuttgart/Wien: Scherz 1963 (Milano: Bompiani) whose edition was artistically co-directed (with Bruno Munari) by Renate <Eco->Ramge who today works as an art instructor and manual graphics specialist at the Faculty of Design of Polytecnico di Milano, done with a care that is on the same level (reminded here on pages 254-257) than that reached by the brilliantly illustrated history of 18th century aesthetics „Die Erfindung der Freiheit“ of Jean Starobinski in 1964 (Geneva: Albert Skira).


And finally in 1962 appeared at once „Opera aperta“ and „Le poetiche di Joyce“ (both Milano: Valentino Bompiani) discussing contemporary aesthetic problems at the same time examplifying these views by an extensive reading of Joyce’s poetics that again shed light particularly on Thomas’s aesthetics. Eco remained faithful. For the „History of Beauty“ sticks with separating beauty from art thereby laying emphasis on the former. It follows the theoretical antecedents and successors of integritas, claritas and proportio with paying attention to categories and phenomena opposed to them and considering artistic form as a realization or alienation of the beautiful. Eco meets Thomas regarding a possible originary unity of beauty (see: Günther Pöltner, Schönheit. Eine Untersuchung des Denkens bei Thomas von Aquin, Wien: Herder 1978). And at the same time he remains postmodern and being so he embraces medieval thought, that of Thomas, in order to have a more practical grid at hand that allows to account for the premodern (prerenaissance) aspects of the beautiful in its historical specificity and that aesthetic qualities that are opposed or complementary to the beautiful only with demonstrating that the domain of beauty is apt to merge with them in its own historically accidental more modern ways.


Yet for achieving this Eco has not invented an own narrative. In general he presupposes THE narrative of a history of THE beautiful as extended from ancient Greek culture to our present times. He did not spend efforts to invent a narrative of its own be it that of A history of (philosophical) aesthetics or even of a fictitious story resulting in a novel, that is to say history embedded in a novel. Concerning the history of aesthetics he could have conceived of a history if not a story. He could have described temporal developments of what he tells in fact, that is either of the beautiful with Greek basics including the Nietzschean distinction of Apollinian/Dionysian, or of the stages of an aesthetics of the machine, or of gender or the sublime and monstrous. It would not necessarily have torn the project apart into five or six ideas. Moreover Eco relies on the readers’ basic encyclopedic knowledge of the last 2500 years’ art and world views and tells more or less molecular stories about the dyads beautiful/pleasant, /rational, /graceful, /good, /monstrous or /sublime inserting a lot of careful selected material.


What follows – before giving an account and praise/criticism – is a detailed (German) table of contents with the titles of the chapters, subchapters and authors whose work is quoted and (;) depicted and with the numbers of the pages that contain Eco’s and Girolamo de Michele’s explanations - three fifths of the 92 pages net written stem from Eco (Introduction, chapters III-VI, XI, XIII, XV-XVII), two fifths from de Michele (I, II, VII-X, XII, XIV).


<0> Einführung 8, 10, 12, 14


I Das ästhetische Ideal Griechenlands


Der Musenchor 37-39, 41 Homer, Platon, Winckelmann, Theognis, Euripides, Platon; Kuros-Statue, Kapitolinische Venus, Exekias, Schale Eos

Die Künstler und die Schönheit 42, 45, 47 Sappho, Winckelmann; SkulpturLapithen-Zentauren, Diskobol, Parthenon-Relief, Laokoon, Venus, Hermes

Die Schönheit der Philosophen 48-51 Xenophon, Platon, Platon, Platon; da Vinci


II Apollinisch und dionysisch


Die delphischen Götter 53, 55f. Nietzsche, Nietzsche; Apollo Belvedere, Apollo + Muses, Lysipp, Kleophrades-Maler, BarberinischerFaun

Von den Griechen zu Nietzsche 57f. Nietzsche, Nietzsche; Meidias-Maler, Silen + Satyrn


III Schönheit als Proportion und Harmonie


Die Zahl und die Musik 61-63 aus Hrabanus Maurus, Gaffurio, Gaffurio

Die Proportion in der Architektur 64, 66f., 69 Philolaos, Pythagoras, Pythagoras, Theon von Smyrna, Bonaventura, Boethius, Platon; pythagoräische Tetraktýs, Ghyka, Michelangelo, de’Barberi, goldener Schnitt, da Vinci, Piero Francesco, Palladio, Kathedrale Notre-Dame, Kathedrale Notre-Dame

Der menschliche Körper 72-75, 77, 80 Vitruv, Plinius, Galen, Platon, anon. Kartäuser, Boethius; Kore, Doryphoros, Polyklet, vierWinde, Führer Stämme Israels, Maurus, Maurus, Dürer, Cesariano, da Vinci

Kosmos und Natur 82f., 85 Plutarch, Alexander v. Aphrodisias, Bonaventura, Wilhelm v. Conches, Isidor v. Sevilla, Johannes Scotus; Ars Demonstrativa, Bible moralisée, Opferung Isaaks

Die anderen Künste 86f. de Honnecourt, Dürer

Funktionalität 88f. Thomas v. Aquin, Thomas v. Aquin, Thomas v. Aquin, Thomas v. Aquin, Thomas v. Aquin, Thomas v. Aquin; Kathedrale Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle

Die Proportion in der Geschichte 90-92, 94-97 Burke; Mondrian, Botticelli, Palma il Vecchio, Cranach, Jubilus Alleluja, Tupa tris sempiternus,  Kathedrale Notre-Dame Chartres, Palladio, Cellarius, Cellarius


IV Licht und Farbe im Mittelalter


Licht und Farben 99f. Beatus v. Liébana, Handschrift, Gebr. Limburg, de La Tour, Beatus v. Liébana

Gott als Licht 102-104 Plotin, Pseudo-Dionysius, Pseudo-Dionysius, Johannes Scotus, Al Kindi; Evangeliar-Cover

Licht, Reichtum und Armut 105-109 Jean de Meung + Guillaume de Loris, Chrétien de Troyes, anon. 14. Jh., Boccaccio, Lentini, Marco Polo, anon. 14. Jh., Dante, Petrarca; Gebr. Limburg, Gebr. Limburg

Die Zierde 111, 113 Isidor v.Sevilla; Schrein Hl. Calmin, Evangeliar-Cover, da Fabriano, Buchmaler am Hof der Anjou

Die Farben in Dichtung und Mystik 114, 117 Dante, Dante, Hildegard v. Bingen; Hildeg. v. Bingen, Wurzel Jesse

Die Farben im täglichen Leben 118 Gebr. Limburg, Gebr. Limburg

Die Symbolik im täglichen Leben 121, 123 Beatus v. Liébana, Lombardischer Buchmaler, Alexanderlied, Bildteppiche Apokalypse

Theologen und Philosophen 125-127, 129 Hugo v. St. Victor, Hugo v. St. Victor, Jean de Meung + Guillaume de Loris, Grosseteste, Grosseteste, Bonaventura, Bonaventura, Dante; di Arpo, Fra Angelico, Colombe


V Die Schönheit der Monster


Eine schöne Darstellung des Hässlichen 131-133, 135f. Platon, Wilhelm v. Auvergne, Bonaventura, Kant, Hegel, Rosenkranz; Bosch, Gorgonenziegel, Beatus v. Liébana, da Modena, Gebr. Limburg

Fabeltiere und Wunderwesen 138-142 anon. 8. Jh., anon. 8. Jh., anon. 8. Jh., anon. 8. Jh., anon. 8. Jh., anon. 8. Jh., Marco Polo; Mappa mundi, Schedelsche Weltchronik, Schedelsche Weltchronik, Kapitell Saint Pierre Chauvigny, Bouricaut-Meister

Das Häßliche in der universalen Symbolik 143, 145, 147 Hugo v. St. Victor/anon. 12. Jh., anon. 2.-5. Jh.; Pfarrkirche San Pietro, Crivelli, Apokalypse

Die Notwendigkeit des Häßlichen für die Schönheit 148f. Bernhard v. Clairvaux, Alexander v. Hales; Beatus v. Liébana, Bruegel d. Ä., Bosch, Bosch

Das Häßliche als Kuriosum der Natur 152 Kircher, Ucello, Ligozzi


VI Von der Schäferin zur engelsgleichen Frau


Heilige und profane Liebe 154, 156, 158, 160 Salomon, anon. 12.-13. Jh., Boccaccio; Leinentäschchen, Memling, Madonna, Konrad v. Altstetten

Damen und Troubadoure 161, 163 Jaufré Rudel, Bernart v. Ventadorn; Meister S. Martino, Heinrich v. Veldig

Damen und Ritter 164-166 anon. 13. Jh., Cavalcanti; Alexanderlied

Dichter und unmögliche Lieben 167-171, 174f. anon., Jaufré Rudel, Jaufré Rudel, Heine, Jaufré Rudel, Rostand, Lapo Gianni, Dante, Dante, Dante, Rossetti; Jaufré Rudel, Zeichnung „Dante + Beatrice“, Rossetti, Schule Fontainebleau


VII Die magische Schönheit im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert


Die Schönheit zwischen Erfindung und Nachahmung der Natur 176, 178 da Vinci; Botticelli, Veneto, Melzi, da Vinci

Das Bildnis 180, 183 Alberti; Ghirlandaio, Jan v. Eyck, Tura

Die übersinnliche Schönheit 184, 186f. Plotin, Ficino, Colonna; Botticelli, del Cossa, P. Christus Venus 188 Bellini, Giorgione, Tizian, Tizian


VIII Damen und Heroen


Die Damen ... 193, 196, 198 da Vinci, Grien, Tizian, Correggio, Domenichino, Giorgione, Velázquez, Fragonard, Manet

... und die Heroen 200, 205 Holbein d. J., Bronzino, della Francesca, Clouet, da Vinci, Verocchio, Caravaggio, Bruegel d. J.

Die praktische Schönheit ... 206, 208 Vermeer, Holbein d. J., Steen

... und die sinnliche Schönheit 209, 212 Castiglione, Cervantes; Raffael, Rubens, Rubens, Caravaggio


IX Von der Anmut zur ruhelosen Schönheit


Auf dem Weg zur subjektiven und multiplen Schönheit 214, 216f. Bembo, Agnolo Firenzuola, Castiglione, Castiglione; Caravaggio, Bronzino, Holbein d. J.

Der Manierismus 218, 220-222, 224 de LaFayette; Giorgione, Dürer, Parmigianino, Arcimboldo, Raimondi, Correggio

Die Krise des Wissens 225 Andreas Cellarius

Melancholie 226, 228 Raffael, Dürer, Borromini, Guarini

Agudeza, Wit, Concettismo 229, 232 Gracián, Tesauro, Tesauro, Marino, Marino, Francesco-Federigo de la Valle, Pucci; daCortona

Das Streben nach dem Absoluten 233f. Shakespeare; Sanmartino, Watteau, Bernini


X Vernunft und Schönheit


Dialektik der Schönheit 237, 239f. Rousseau, Kant, de Sade; Zoffani, Fragonard, Quentin de la Tour, Chardin

Strenge und Befreiung 241 Fragonard

Paläste und Gärten 242 Chiswick House, Villa Chigi Cetinale

Klassizität und Klassizismus 244-247 Hume, Hume; Tischbein, Canova, Pannini

Heroen, Körper und Ruinen 249-251 Winckelmann, Winckelmann; David, Hackert, Füssli

Neue Ideen, neue Themen 252, 254-257 Addison, Diderot, Hogarth, Burke, da Ponte; Liotard, Boucher, David, Encyclopédie, Hogarth

Frauen und Leidenschaften 259-261 de Scudéry, Defoe; Liotard, Kauffmann, Carte du Tendre, David

Das freie Spiel der Schönheit 264f., 267 Kant, Leopardi, Hutcheson; Romney, Russel, Boullée

Die grausame und dunkle Schönheit 269, 272 de Laclos, Wollstonecraft Shelley; Goya, Longhi, Goya


XI Das Erhabene


Eine neue Auffassung vom Schönen 275-277 Hume, Hume; Friedrich, Chardin, Fragonard

Erhaben ist das Echo einer großen Seele 278f. Pseudo-Longinus, Pseudo-Longinus, Pseudo-Longinus; Bernini

Das Erhabene der Natur 281f., 284 Aristoteles, Aristoteles, Poe, Foscolo, Burnet; Wolf, Friedrich, Friedrich

Die Poetik der Ruinen 285 Shelley; Schinkel, Friedrich

Das „Gotische“ in der Literatur 288f. Shelley, Shelley, Tasso, Schiller; Füssli

Edmund Burke 290-293 Burke, Burke, Burke, Burke, Burke, Burke; Foscolo, Friedrich, Burke, Piranesi

Das Erhabene Kants 294-297 Kant, Coleridge, Schiller, von Arnim/C. Brentano; Bradford, Friedrich


XII Die romantische Schönheit


Die romantische Schönheit 299, 301-303 Shakespeare, Foscolo, Baudelaire, d’Annunzio, Hugo; Mengin, Fabre, Medusenhaupt, Delacroix, Hayez

Romantische Schönheit und romanhafte Schönheit 304, 306-308 de Laclos, F. Schlegel, Foscolo, Manzoni, Bonaparte, Goethe; Millais, Delacroix, Ingres

Die vage Schönheit des „ich weiß nicht was“ 310, 312 Kant, Shelley, Novalis; Corot, Schinkel

Romantik und Revolte 313f. Giraud, Delacroix

Wahrheit, Mythos, Ironie 315, 317-320 Hegel, Keats, F. Schlegel, ältest. Systemprogramm, Foscolo, Goethe; Chassériau, Hayez, Füssli, Delacroix

Finster, grotesk, melancholisch 321-324 Tasso, Marino, Milton, Shelley, Delacroix; Géricault, Delville

Lyrische Romantik 325 Cammarano; Sargent, Hayez


XIII Die Religion der Schönheit


Die ästhetische Religion 329-333 Dickens, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vivien, Verlaine, d’Annunzio; Rossetti, Doré, Couture, Courbet

Der Dandy 333-335 Baudelaire, Wilde; Porträt Wilde, Boldini Liebe, Tod und Teufel 336-337 Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Wilde; Moreau

L’art pour l’art 338-340 Huysmans, Wilde, d’Annunzio; Millet, Manet

À rebours 341-343, 345 Swinburne, Lorrain, Huysmans, Gautier, Péladan, Baudelaire, Zola, Huysmans, Wilde, Valéry; Degas, Rossetti, Beardsley

Der Symbolismus 346-350 Wilde, Baudelaire, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Rimbaud; Klimt, Fantin-Latour, Manet

Der ästhetische Mystizismus 351 Millais

Die Ekstase in den Dingen 353-355 Pater, Joyce; Burne-Jones, Abbott, Blanche

Die Impression 356, 358 Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Cézanne


XIV Das neue Objekt


Die solide viktorianische Schönheit 361-363 Hobsbawm; Guimard, Pugin, Foto von Tea Party

Eisen und Glas: die neue Schönheit 364, 366f. Labrouste, Labrouste, Eiffel, Paxton, Pugin

Vom Art Nouveau zum Art Déco 368f., 371f. Sternberger, PA-Ministerpräsident; Wolfers, Porträt Louise Brooks, van de Velde, Dudovich, Aghion

Die organische Schönheit 374f. Gaudí, F. L. Wright

Gebrauchsgegenstände: Kritik, Kommerzialisierung, Seriencharakter 376-378 Schawinsky, Duchamp, Duchamp, Morandi, Oldenbourg, Warhol, Warhol


XV Die Schönheit der Maschinen


Die schöne Maschine? 381-383 Blake, Montale; Brammenstrang-Gießanlage, phöniz. Streitaxtklinge, Relief Assurbanipal, Hine, Encyclopédie, Abb. Kanonenrohrmaschine, Curio

Von der Antike zum Mittelalter 385, 387 Liutprand von Cremona; Heron, de Honnecourt

Vom 15. Jahrhundert bis zur Barockzeit 388-390 Ficino, Sempronio; de Caus, da Vinci, Kircher, Ramelli

18. und 19. Jahrhundert 392f. Carducci; Watt, Paré, Encyclopédie Abb. Chirurgie, de Nittis

Das 20. Jahrhundert 394, 396-399 Marinetti, Marinetti, Folgore, Sempronio, Roussel, Kafka, Barthes; Rorè, Chaplin, Tinguely


XVI Von abstrakten Formen auf den Grund der Materie


„Seine Statuen in den Felsen suchen“ 401 Michelangelo; Michelangelo

Die zeitgenössische Aufwertung der Materie 402, 405 Pareyson; Pollock, Burri, Fontana

Das objet trouvé 406 Duchamp

Von der reproduzierten zur industriellen Materie, auf den Grund der Materie 407, 409 Pieyre de Mandiargues; Twombly, César, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Peitgen/Richter


XVII Die Schönheit der Medien


Schönheit der Provokation oder Schönheit des Konsums 413f. Monroe, de Meyer, Man Ray

Die Avantgarde oder die Schönheit der Provokation 415, 417 Severini, Picasso, Malewitsch

Die Schönheit des Konsums 418, 425f., 428 Twiggy, Garbo, Hayworth, Kelly, Bardot, Hepburn, Dietrich, Ekberg, Wayne, Astaire/Rogers, Grant, Brando, Dean, Mastroianni, Raymond, Edelmann, Hannah/Hauer, Ling, Campbell, Rodman, Moss


Here is the summary. Chapter ONE emphasizes that the Greeks stick with the opposition of the beautiful-pleasant to the true and found the former expressed by the sculpture of the human body and the philosophy of geometry, proportion/harmony and splendour. Like never before chapter TWO takes historically seriously the pair Apollinian/Dionysian. THREE shows the theoretical significance of mathematical and unfortunately less musical proportion from Pythagoras through Kepler with useful remarks about cosmos, painting, architecture, body and the discovery of a functionality with the mutual cooperation of parts finally running in Edmund Burke’s criticism of mere objective proportion. What is only an indication with splendor in Plato ascends to one of medieval key features, that is, as told in FOUR, the history of light and colour with respect to the concept of god and in relation to wealth and decorum as exemplary thereby equipping light and colour with hitherto unseen symbolism and mysticism. After having explained the often underestimated aesthetic of the monstrous and ugly in FIVE, the figures of the shepherdess and the angel-like woman in SIX - still with focus on medieval times from the Song of Solomon to preraphaelite Rosetti - give a case of the relevance of the relation of the sexes for the perception of beauty, a topic taken up again - after SEVEN’s all too short elaborations on the magical beauty reserved for the renaissance - with a grouping of ladies and heroes in EIGHT that prepares the ground for - shown in NINE - an aesthetic of grace in its turn giving way to surfacing of a more restless, subjective and mannerist beauty and opening up to the critical epistemic values of agudeza and the absolute that are so crucial before and after 1600.


Under the heading „reason/beauty“ a superabundant chapter TEN is devoted to many of later 18th century’s topics and cultural phenomena, to for instance an aesthetics of „rapports“, ruins, „map of the heart“, the English garden, classicist and revolutionary architecture, the carnival - of course entailing, with ELEVEN, a history of the sublime that is told from Aristotle’s catharsis and Pseudo-Longinus’s first conception to Burke, romanticism (C. D. Friedrich) and beyond (E. A. Poe). With TWELVE’s „Romantic Beauty“ is dealt with a variety of texts, pictures and thoughts like the revolt of Neue Mythologie, but also 17th century remainders like Milton or the je-ne-sais-quoi and the photographic Ingres or Delville paintings. Separate chapter THIRTEEN labels with „religion of beauty“ movements and phenomena after 1850 like l’art-pour-l’art, androgynity, symbolism from Poe to the poètes maudits, impressionism and the preraphaelites (including the book’s sole two poet portraits of Eco favorites Joyce and Proust) and with John Ruskin’s contra views that lead to chapter FORTEEN’s „new object“ aesthetic with new technologies used by historist architecture, arts & crafts, art nouveau and art déco paving the way to the organicism of a Gaudí or the serialism of today’s consumer culture. It makes sense here to insert, with a chapter FIFTEEN, by references to Marinetti and Tinguely a history of (the idea of) beauty machines even if extended to historically distant antique or baroque areas. And it makes sense here to remember with SIXTEEN the aesthetics of materials as put forward by abstract expressionists, pop art and fractals. Whatever is meant by „beauty of the media“ in its full range, chapter SEVENTEEN addresses it - with lots of photographic material - focusing on the beauty of models who only seem to erase the last traces of a transcendence that was preserved by artistic representation as realist as it may have been considered to be.


To start with some criticism: What I miss is kinds of beauty that are not restricted to be embodied in the objects of paintings, beautiful human (!) beings (not animals, plants) and machines. Eco does not consider landscape or environmental beauty, interior (one single exception and no discotheque, Mr. Eco!), urban or media design (last chapter’s title misleads), literature (not referring to the beautiful), architecture, music and photography or film that is not restricted to the rather little section of the looks of actresses and actors. Concerning landscape we well know that the category of the picturesque - besides the beautiful and the sublime - introduced the still little known categorial and objectual change of the beautiful - along with an aggregation and accumulation of the named three together with the shocking, the ugly, the comical, the ridiculous, the interesting, the disgusting, the convulsive and all the other aesthetic qualities/categories the beautiful is theoretically inextricably linked thereby running into THE aesthetic as we know it today. I wonder how a history of the aesthetic would look that does not dispense with the ambition to illustrate it as richly as Eco does. (With Eco it is like with the various attractions to Odysseus on his journey back home. You have to force yourself keep steering at the road of discursive text and not being diverted by the pictures that are so tempting and easy to browse through.)


The lack of a critical approach, it seems to me, seduces Eco to sometimes fall into the traps of the commercial beauty of geniuses’ pantings, rich woman (depicted or photographed) and other expensive things. (The book - at least in the German version - is already brilliant because of the outstanding graphic quality of the pictures taken from a lot of equally famous and important paintings from all the historical periods and areas available.) It comes to my mind that ubertas was not thought as aesthetic since Kant and industrialization, and that it was Baumgarten as the last one to do so. Of course some further reading of the history of aesthetics would have been required of Eco who almost provocatively names Pareyson as the only aesthetician of the 20th century and in his rather select bibliography only Nietzsche and Wilde as aestheticians the least distant from our times. I do not want to be unfair but I further wonder what figure nature would have made if conceived of as the sole justification of beauty in times that ideologically fetishize beauty but would need it as a transcendent point of orientation of course with regards to a philosophical concept of history still believing in true progress as the historico-materialist aesthetics of Adorno had it.


Eco’s merits are to be found in courageously delineating a perspective faithful to his original interest in the 1950ies - Thomas, medieval aesthetics, Joyce and film - and daring to fill in related and expanded areas. So we get a fresh perspective onto the cultural complexities of English and non-English late 19th century and along with it insights that historians and philosophers of the period’s aesthetics never could have gained. The same with ancient times. Eco applies the Apollinian/Dionysian distinction with ease to the history of ancient thought and not only to the essence of historical art itself that Nietzsche felt forced to diversify against the monist conception of Winckelmann that still was influential in the later times of that century. And when it is not Eco himself then it is his partner Girolamo de Michele who helps out with an unknown amount of Burke that sheds another light on the Leibniz-Baumgarten-Kant 18th century, a twilight that the dark side 19th century well endures.


It seems almost obscene to me to have at hands, on a few pages collected, the most important and almost painfully beautiful pictures in the best optical quality imaginable. So much beauty is hard to stand. At least one can understand it with Eco belonging to the land of if not design, then of disegno: Italy. This explains to me that smart Eco who is formed by the nation’s wealth of Greek, medieval, renaissance, baroque and modernist cultures undoubtfully has acquired the taste and deepened it in the course of his life so much that he disposes of a natural memory with which he is capable of thinking as usually only art historians are. Yet the book under scrutiny here is not a case of art history or cultural history as might some philosophers reproach Eco with. What Eco has to say he says with a history of ideas that is composed not only of discursive text but also of pictures and texts of a whole range of different kinds that are tied together in a intuitive variety of functions, the functions of quotes, illustrations, uncommented documents, labelings and so forth with the medium of the whole operation being personal experience of beautiful things, texts and beings represented or seen in nature.


That is the point. Eco is not only a scholar who certainly could be more sharply criticized than done here in terms of what we know today about the history of philosophical aesthetics. He is also an author, and he reserves the right of an author with various techniques beyond disciplinary aesthetics like the story or the montage or the „picture“ of a composed page ore section or chapter. This may be characteristic for mature author Eco who keeps in mind that a novel text illustrated would have been impossible to write. Is this a postmodernism of a scholarly kind in the humanities? I’d rather hold that Eco was wise enough to stick with modern times’ intellectual achievements in this case. We know that commercially aware Eco published along with the „History of Beauty“ a novel concerning his childhood indeed. It would have been impossible to work on two novels at the same time anyway even though it would have only been reworking the first version 2002 CD-ROM. Should we take the fact of Eco’s real childhood as the subject matter of his novel of this year as the point of departure for interpreting „History of Beauty“ as edited by Eco as a reflection of Eco’s intellectual youth? That business definitely goes beyond the review at stake here. But it seems evident to me that Eco’s two major occupations of writing novels and philosophizing the beautiful are secretly linked with each other and be this alone because of the intermediate link of semiotics and literary theory the founding of which brought Eco his first fame long before his novel successes and the success the „History of Beauty“ will become almost as certainly as the sun rises or sets.



Peter Mahr © 2004



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