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Old 22nd January 2006   #1
HSG
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Default On the Beauty of Women


The next time that you visit your local bookseller, as you make your way to the literature section, look around and see how many so-called "beauty guides" fill the store's shelves. Guidebooks such as these are ubiquitous nowadays, and, as one might expect, the type of advice that they dispense presupposes that all women are (or should be) underweight--or, at the very least, that they are struggling to look that way.

But it wasn't always thus.

The first sustained study of ideal feminine appearance--or at least, the first such study that survives to the present day--is a treatise titled On the Beauty of Women (1548), penned by the Florentine author Agnolo Firenzuola.

In a recent post, we discussed how Prudentius's poem, Psychomachia, exemplified a censorious medieval valuation of feminine beauty, according to which such beauty was no longer considered a virtue (as it had been in the Classical era) but a vice (an assessment that lingered for much of the Middle Ages).

But Firenzuola's work is part of that great art movement known as the Renaissance, which transcended medieval didacticism, and rediscovered the Classical art and philosophy that had been forgotten for centuries--and in the process, reinvigorated Western culture.

Firenzuloa's Renaissance-era "beauty guide" bears little resemblance to its modern equivalents, which encourage women to look as unnatural and unfeminine as possible. Rather, Firenzuola's "beauty rules" exemplify the timeless feminine ideal that is embodied by today's most celebrated plus-size models.

* * *

It should come as no surprise that Firenzuola, writing in the age of painters such as Titian, idealizes the fuller female figure. The author states that the ideal feminine body should be "plump and juicy" (that is a faithful translation), and that "the breadth of the bosom lends great majesty to the entire body." Moreover, he explains that women's figures should possess "a certain something that suggests the aura of a queen."

Melissa Masi modelling for Torrid

In terms of colouring, Firenzuola states that women should exhibit "a certain softness of color," which varies according to each attribute:

Somewhere white, as in the hands, somewhere fair and vermillion, as in the cheeks, somewhere black, as in the eyelashes, somewhere red, as in the lips, somewhere blonde, as in the hair.

Caitlyn Ketron, Campbell Agency, size 14

He devotes considerable space to defining the term "fair," which, he states,

is not the white that slides into pallor, but that white, tinged with blood, that was so prized by the Ancients.

His remarks remain helpful today, in explaining how the words "fair" and "pale" are not synonymous, and that "fair" refers to a natural, peaches-and-cream complexion, which exhibits the distinctive flush of well-fed health. As Firenzuola observes,

the cheeks must be fair. Fair is a color that, besides being white, also has a certain luster, as ivory does; while white is that which does not glow, such as snow.

Alicia (size 18/20) modelling for Torrid

He further elaborates that fair skin "should not be a washed-out white, without any luster, but glowing like a mirror."

Firenzuola is similarly unambiguous about ideal hair colour, asserting that "the proper and true color of hair should be blonde," and later elaborating on the point by stating that

The hair, then . . . should be fine and blonde, sometimes similar to gold, sometimes to honey, sometimes like the bright rays of a clear sun, wavy, thick, abundant, long.

Amber Cather modelling for Macy's. (Amber is probably the industry's most attractive faux-plus model--sadly, only a size 12 at 5'10''. Were she a size 14 or better, she would instantly become one of the most significant plus-size models of all time.)

In this, as in nearly all of his conclusions, Firenzuola stresses that he is echoing the ideals of the ancient world, and most specifically, the extant descriptions of the Classical goddess of beauty, Venus. He refers to Venus specifically when, in determining ideal hair length, he concludes that it is absolutely essential for beautiful women to wear their hair quite long (anticipating by centuries the present-day preference for "voluptuous volume"):

Venus, that beautiful Venus who, among the three fairest goddesses was judged to be the most beautiful and won the apple of beauty, this goddess, deprived of the light, the splendor, the ornament of her golden hair, would be liked by no one, not even her beloved Vulcan, her husband and tender lover. How wonderful it is to see an elegant woman with thick hair gathered in abundant locks upon her head, or falling in ample waves upon her shoulders!

Amber Cather modelling for Fashion Bug. (Amber is probably the industry's most attractive faux-plus model--sadly, only a size 12 at 5'10''. Were she a size 14 or better, she would instantly become one of the most significant plus-size models of all time.)

The point about hair length is obviously of paramount importance to Firenzuola, for her returns to it again and again in his work. He cautions that

Even though a very beautiful woman should bedeck herself very sumptuously with gold and pearls, and cover herself in very rich clothes, and should go out adorned in all the fashion and ornament that can be imagined, if she has not arranged her hair in a pleasing fashion and set it in a charming skillful way, one would never say that she was either beautiful or elegant.

Amber Cather modelling for Parisian. (Amber is probably the industry's most attractive faux-plus model--sadly, only a size 12 at 5'10''. Were she a size 14 or better, she would instantly become one of the most significant plus-size models of all time.)

To complete the picture of "fair beauty," Firenzuola affirms that blue is the ideal eye colour for women, reminding his readers that "it is written by very trustworthy authors that beautiful Venus had them."

Valerie Lefkowitz

And, in another expression of unmistakable preference for opulent beauty, Firenzuola determines that what we would today call a "double chin" is, in fact, a woman's most beautiful attribute:

If the chin I have described should then slope toward the throat and run into a slight rise, it gains in overall beauty. And in full-figured women it is the foremost ornament, and a sweet companion to the beauties of the throat.

postcard reproduction of Angelo Asti paining

And not surprisingly, he devotes considerable space to the description of ideally beautiful arms:

They are very white, with a slight shade of flesh-pink on the raised parts, fleshy . . . but with a certain softness so that they seem to be not Hercules' arms when he squeezed Cacus, but Pallas's arms when she stood before the shepherd. They must be full of a natural substance that gives them a certain vigor and freshness which in turn generates such a firmness that, if you press it with a finger, the flesh will give way under the finger and immediately turn white, but the moment the finger is raised the flesh rises again and the whiteness disappears and lets the flesh-pink color return.

Barbara Brickner modelling for Nordstrom

But Firenzuola does more than simply provide a catalogue of ideal feminine attributes, one by one. In many passages, he infuses his descriptions with passion worthy of a Petrarchan sonneteer:

The mouth, cleft lengthwise, was then hemmed by Nature with two lips that seem to be of finest coral, like the edges of a most beautiful fountain. The Ancients consecrated them to beautiful Venus, for this is the seat of those loving kisses capable of letting souls pass mutually from the body of one to that of the other lover. And, therefore, when we gaze intently upon the lips, filled with extreme pleasure, we feel our soul always about to leave us, eager to go and rest herself upon them.

Barbara Brickner in an editorial page from ''Mode'' magazine

And for Firenzuola, the attractiveness of a beautiful woman is reflected in every action that she takes:

If she laughs she is pleasing, if she speaks she is delightful, if she remains silent she fills others with admiration, if she walks she is graceful, if she sits she is charming, if she sings she is sweet, if she dances Venus is in her company, if she converses the Muses are teaching her.

Christina Schmidt modelling for Torrid (unused image)

But what ultimately distinguishes Firenzuola's On the Beauty of Women from its modern equivalents is more than just the particulars of the author's descriptions--although those are certainly far healthier and more natural than present-day standards of appearance, which prompt women to fight their natural inclinations to be pampered goddesses, and instead to, turn themselves into androgynous worker-drones.

Firenzuola emphasizes that the admiration of feminine beauty awakens in the human mind an ability to contemplate even greater ideals. In the book's most signfiicant passage, the author explains that

A beautiful woman is the most beautiful object one can admire, and beauty is the greatest gift God bestowed on His human creatures. And so, through her virtue we direct our souls to contemplation, and through contemplation to the desire for heavenly things.

Yanderis modelling for Aurora Formals

For this reason beautiful women have been sent among us as a sample and a foretaste of heavenly things, and they have such power and virtue that wise men have declared them to be the first and best object worthy of being loved. They have even called her the seat of love, the nest and abode of love, of that love, I say, which is the origin and source of all human joys.

Lindsey Garbelman modelling for Aurora formals

One sees man forget himself for her, and, looking at a face adorned with this heavenly grace, his limbs shudder, his hair curls, he sweats and shivers at the same time, not unlike one who, unexpectedly seeing something divine, is possessed by divine frenzy,

Barbara Brickner, test image

and when he is finally himself again, adores it with his thoughts and reveres it with his mind, and recognizing it as something like a god, gives himself to it as a sacrificial victim on the altar of the beautiful woman's heart.

Lillian Russell--image courtesy of Mr. David Stone

* * *

How a culture regards beauty is a litmus test of its depth and sophistication. In times of degeneration, as in the 20th century, beauty is condemned as "shallow" (which only testifies to the shallowness of the interpreters themselves), or understood in narrowly didactic ways. But in the greatest cultures, such as in Classical Antiquity, or in the Renaissance, beauty is venerated as a lodestar that leads mankind to higher levels of artistic accomplishment. Such cultures understand that beauty is more than "myth," but that which gives life meaning and purpose.

In our own day and age, we are long overdue for another great rebirth of culture, an aesthetic restoration that will have the same revivifying effect on the West that the Renaissance had, in Agnolo Firenzuola's day. And when that rebirth takes place, perhaps "beauty guides" will no longer espouse artificial modern standards, as they do today, but will once again champion the timeless feminine ideal that was the guiding light of our culture since time immemorial.


Last edited by HSG : 27th November 2009 at 08:06.
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Old 24th January 2006   #2
Emily
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Default Re: On the Beauty of Women

Quote:
Originally Posted by HSG
"If the chin I have described should then slope toward the throat and run into a slight rise, it gains in overall beauty. And in full-figured women it is the foremost ornament, and a sweet companion to the beauties of the throat."

It's so nice to see yet another example of this feature (there must be a better name for it than "double chin"!) being singled out for aesthetic appreciation. I remember that the art critics who discussed Goya's painting of Isabel de Porcel also enthused about this detail. Both Firenzuola and Goya, as well as every admirer of beautiful women prior to the modern age, would be perplexed by how people censure it today. They viewed it, rightly, as a cute and youthful feature, a perfect example of soft, feminine beauty. It would be wonderful if plus-size models could bring back this aesthetic taste.

I was also encourged to see Firenzuola specifically praise arms that he calls "fleshy . . . but with a certain softness so that they seem to be not Hercules' arms when he squeezed Cacus, but Pallas's arms when she stood before the shepherd." He makes an important distinction between the soft fullness of femininity, and a masculized appearance. The two are worlds apart.
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Old 25th January 2006   #3
Kaitlynn
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Default Re: On the Beauty of Women

Quote:
Originally Posted by Emily
It would be wonderful if plus-size models could bring back this aesthetic taste.

I agree. This may be the most exciting thing of all about plus-size models - that they can help society learn to appreciate that ALL womanly curves are beautiful, not just a full bust, but also a chin that "runs into a slight rise" (I love the way Firenzuola phrased that), and a generous waist, and full shapely arms, etc.

I also really loved the writer's distinction between "fair" and pale. I was trying to explain this difference to somebody a while ago, but couldn't really expess myself. Firenzuola phrases the difference so poetically, and I'll be quoting him any time this comes up again.

I think Amber is very pretty. I agree that if she were a little fuller figured, she would become one of the most celebrated of plus-size models.
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