cover image On Ugliness

On Ugliness

Umberto Eco, . . Rizzoli, $45 (456pp) ISBN 978-0-8478-2986-6

Italian literary and cultural critic Eco opens this visually dazzling and intellectually provocative companion volume to his History of Beauty (2004) by arguing that ugliness has been defined through the ages only as the opposite of beauty. Eco attempts to go further in this analysis of ugliness—part history, part cultural criticism—which echoes premises from his previous survey: a correspondence between the public’s tastes and artists’ sensibilities must be assumed, and cultural and historical contexts determine how both beauty and ugliness are portrayed and received. Each chapter juxtaposes images with brief excerpts from texts through the centuries, and Eco’s choices are superb: a discussion of “industrial ugliness” includes excerpts from Baudelaire, DeLillo and the Eiffel Tower’s originally negative reception; the delightful chapter on kitsch includes Hermann Broch and Eco’s own hilarious description of California’s Madonna Inn. Eco’s thoughts on ugliness in contemporary culture are the most interesting: in an age of goth and cyborg aesthetics, the boundaries between beauty and ugliness are perhaps permanently blurred. This unusual and eclectic study will appeal to cultural and art historians as well as to the general reader with an interest in a rarely examined topic. 300 color illus. (Nov.)