Book review ‘On Ugliness’

  • Author (scrittore): Umberto Eco
  • Publisher: Rizzoli International Publications
  • Publishing year: 2007
  • Original title: La Storia della Bruttezza
  • Number of Pages: 455
  • ISBN: 978-0847829866
  • My rating: 4/5
What is ugliness?


In the mold of his acclaimed History of Beauty, renowned cultural critic Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness is an exploration of the monstrous and the repellant in visual culture and the arts. What is the voyeuristic impulse behind our attraction to the gruesome and the horrible? Where does the magnetic appeal of the sordid and the scandalous come from? Is ugliness also in the eye of the beholder? Eco’s encyclopedic knowledge and captivating storytelling skills combine in this ingenious study of the Ugly, revealing that what we often shield ourselves from and shun in everyday life is what we’re most attracted to subliminally. Topics range from Milton’s Satan to Goethe’s Mephistopheles; from witchcraft and medieval torture tactics to martyrs, hermits, and penitents; from lunar births and disemboweled corpses to mythic monsters and sideshow freaks; and from Decadentism and picturesque ugliness to the tacky, kitsch, and camp, and the aesthetics of excess and vice. With abundant examples of painting and sculpture ranging from ancient Greek amphorae to Bosch, Brueghel, and Goya among others, and with quotations from the most celebrated writers and philosophers of each age, this provocative discussion explores in-depth the concepts of evil, depravity, and darkness in art and literature.

My thoughts:

Storia della bruttezza

Maybe you know this already, or maybe not, but I’m a huge fan of art in all its forms. But like every art lover (art critic?) I have preferences in what I love, what I like and what I abhor. While I do not with to start this discussion here and now, Umberto Eco does! In his books ‘On Beauty’ and ‘On Ugliness’ (aka the history of beauty and ugliness), of which I now just finished the latter.

Illustrated with pictures of artwork, statues, movie stills and with a lot of excerpts from written texts and literature, Eco tried to explain what beauty and ugliness meant for us during the course of history.

You might like Botticelli, another might prefer Schiele or Picasso or Mirò or maybe Van Eyck?

Are you into kitsch or camp stuff? What about the ancients and how did Mary Shelley come up with her monster? Is witchcraft and satanism part of an ugly lifestyle?

Eco provides a vision (not an answer, nor a conclusion) that might differ from how you and me think but it is a dissertation on how people before us thought and judged.

What was ugly then, might be considered a masterpiece now!

Great fun reading this!

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