|22nd January 2006||#1|
Join Date: July 2005
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."
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.
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.
He further elaborates that fair skin "should not be a washed-out white, without any luster, but glowing like a mirror."
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.
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!
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last edited by HSG : 27th November 2009 at 07:06.
|24th January 2006||#2|
Join Date: July 2005
Re: On the Beauty of Women
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.
|25th January 2006||#3|
Join Date: July 2005
Re: On the Beauty of Women
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.
|Thread Tools||Search this Thread|