On Beauty and Ugliness, by Umberto Eco

>> Sunday, August 30, 2009

More beautiful, coffee-table style books from the library. In On Beauty and On Ugliness, Umberto Eco explores the history and evolution of those two ideas. Both books are are beautifully illustrated with reproductions of all sorts of pieces of art and photographs, but they are not simply a visual exploration. Literature and critical essays are also used to explore concepts like the link between beauty (or ugliness) and virtue or the link between beauty and philosophy and religion.

If I ever thought of ugliness as a concept before reading this book, I thought of simply the opposite of beauty. In On Ugliness, Eco shows it's more than that. He goes into both what it's been associated with over the years, but also into why we are also fascinated by it.

It's a beautiful book, and Eco's prose is gripping and clear, even when he's illustrating quite complex concepts.


On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea was the first book published, but the one I read last. The first 35 pages, which are the introduction and some really interesting tables showing how different motifs have evolved over time (Venus naked, Adonis naked, Venus clothed, Adonis clothed, etc.) were really interesting. But then come the first three chapters, where the text bored me to tears. If I hadn't read On Ugliness first, I don't think I would have continued.

Fortunately, after the 100th page, more or less, things improved. The style and format were quite the same, but while the first three chapters came across as meaningless mumbo-jumbo, the next few were crystal-clear. Still, I was finding some chapters which were clear, where the texts illustrated and explained the concepts and helped me appreciate the images and passages better, but other chapters just obscured everything even more. And then I looked at the copyright page and realised that Eco had written only some of the texts, the others (almost half of the chapters) were written by someone else, a Girolamo de Michele. And a quick check showed that I was liking the chapters written by Eco and finding unreadable the ones written by the other author. Ahhhh.

MY GRADE: A B -a B+ for Eco's chapters, D for the others.


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