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Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

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3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,113 ratings  ·  43 reviews
In this authoritative, lively book, the celebrated Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco presents a learned summary of medieval aesthetic ideas. Juxtaposing theology and science, poetry and mysticism, Eco explores the relationship that existed between the aesthetic theories and the artistic experience and practice of medieval culture.

“[A] delightful study. . . .
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Paperback, 144 pages
Published February 8th 2002 by Yale University Press (first published 1959)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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Sara
Sep 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
Umberto Eco wrote this short treatise 50-some years ago. It was re-released in the 80s (after the success of Name of the Rose, I hazard the guess?) in a new translation with a new, humble introduction by the author. It is still an engaging read for anyone interested in medieval art or the development, in general, of western aesthetics.

Like most medievalists, Eco writes of medieval thought as though he were defending its intelligence, complexity and dignity from virulent detractors. It has been a
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Suzannah
Feb 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
In his Preface, Umberto Eco self-deprecatingly tells us that this early monograph was written back in the days when he thought "that a tortured syntax was a respectable symptom of wisdom and maturity." Certainly this slim volume was on the chewy side, and Eco uses a lot of terms (kalokagathia, for example) which I was unfamiliar with.

As a result, I'm not confident I understood more than about three-quarters of what he was saying in this book, but the bits I did understand were terrific. I found
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Joshua
Feb 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-music-fim
An excellent guide to... you guessed it... art and beauty in the Middle Ages. Eco knows an extraordinary amount about the Medieval Ages/Middle Ages/Renaissance and offers an insightful and concise introduction to the subject. Among other things, this book provides explanations for why the Medievals liked solid colours (not shading), why later cathedrals had so many windows, why some pictures only have two Magi (not three) and why ugly things could be seen as beautiful. Books like this are a mark ...more
Lynn Weber
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: medieval
A short, clear treatise on how medieval aesthetics was (generally) based on the following of time-honored rules rather than innovation or expression.
Zach Mazlish
May 16, 2019 rated it liked it
Lots of minute details about medieval theories and the theorists behind them which basically boils down to an aesthetic heavily influenced by Christianity where mathematical harmony was key, and the aesthetic and the moral were essentially merged. The stuff about "light" and holiness was interesting, and made me wonder more about where that notion came from. All the best parts were when Eco took the time to distinguish between their aesthetics and the humanist aesthetics that came afterwards. ...more
Joseph R.
Jan 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read_2016, philosophy
Quite often the middle ages are the forgotten link between the Classical period and the Renaissance. Moderns assume that Renaissance thinkers and artists rediscovered the works of ancient Greece and Rome and had this amazing and original break with medieval tradition. Umberto Eco (author of The Name of the Rose among other works) dispels this myth with this overview of aesthetic and artistic theory in the years from AD 500 to 1400.

Eco shows the classical roots of medieval theory and theology.
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Tech Nossomy
Nov 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Rather than presenting an overarching theory or framework, the book lists various viewpoints regarding beauty and esthetics in medieval art. As with all Eco's works, a solid grounding in European history and literature serves the reader well.
The sources cited are by persons whose background is not further explained. It would have helped if the statements and conclusions made by the original authors were matched against their livelihoods and credentials.
Interestingly the books De Perspectiva and
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Michael Belcher
According to Eco, the medieval “philosophy of beauty appears cut off from its artistic practices as if by a sheet of glass.” As with all of Eco’s work, his brilliance shines forth, but perhaps owing to the early nature of “Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages” in the larger scheme of his ouvre, Eco manages to tackle the “philosophy of beauty” in a thorough, albeit workmanlike way, while for the most part neglecting the “artistic practices” part of the equation. This leaves the reader with only half ...more
Alexander
A slim but insightful book on the aesthetics of medieval philosophers. Eco connects the dots well between early and late, and east and west. He goes so far as to compare modernities signs and symbols to those of the middle ages. I will not rehash any of his arguments here, but only say that if you have a modicum of knowledge on Aquinas, Scotus, Boethius or the likes, then you will follow Eco on a wonderful exploration of how religion and metaphysics permeate the philosophy and psychology of ...more
Katy Wilmotte
Apr 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I expected this book to be a history of...well, art and beauty in the Middle Ages.

Instead, it proved to be series of essays on various aspects and movements in medieval aesthetic tradition, how Medievals perceived the world and beauty in the world. As Eco summarizes, "They saw the world with the eyes of God."

Once I adjusted my brain to accommodate this meaty topic, I really enjoyed it. I definitely learned a lot, and realized that I have a lot left to learn. And I also need to read more
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Amy Jane
Mar 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
A really great introduction to the Middle Ages and the mindset of the pre-Renaissance thinkers, theologians and artists. Eco writes with a clarity that makes for a very accessible but informed read. I wish there were pictures though!
Jessica
Jun 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Wonderful for pinpointing the philosophy and aesthetic of the Middle Ages and its art.
Amanda Patchin
Sep 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful. Eco is comprehensive but detailed and interpretive but factual.
Greg
Jan 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Most people know Umberto Eco as a writer of historical fiction, and a fine one at that. In reality, he is a scholar who also writes fiction, as this book clearly demonstrates. Written early in his career and clearly an attempt to correct the misperceptions many people have about medieval philosophy and aesthetics, Eco surveys the major developments within their setting. Eco believes there is a basic misunderstanding about the medieval mind about beauty. Early on, he states: “Ascetics, in all ...more
Roisin
Aug 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is a short but detailed exploration of art and beauty in the Middle Ages in Wester Art and is a good place to start for those who are new or know a bit and enjoy discussion on these areas.

Looking at aesthetics, perception, light, symbol and allegory, theories and the artist and the status of art in relation to ideas, language and terms used, this fascinating study using beliefs and the works of Aquinus, St Bonaventure, St Hildegard, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, William of Auvergne, the
...more
Karen
Jan 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book is a joy, thorough, profound, enlightening, magisterial and fun. Eco plays with language as Mozart played with music, and art and beauty are set like gems in the matrix of evolving medieval thought, which is delineated in this context. A familiarity with the major theologians of the Middle Ages helps, but the book is accessible anyway, amusing on occasion, and respectful. I learned new words, was surprised to find bright colors almost a universal attribute of beauty (Eco did not ...more
Christopher
Aug 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was a lovely book. Eco is such a good historian of ideas, even at the young age at which he wrote this gem. Not many people could weave together the disparate strands of philosophy, theology and art history that Eco does, covering a period ranging over a thousand years but doing so in a way that does not seem rushed or sketchy. It was utterly fascinating, mesmerizing. I'm looking forward even more now to reading some of his historical fiction! Anyone who enjoys medieval history or ...more
Paul Blaney
Aug 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Having encountered quite a lot of medieval cathedrals and frescoes during my recent holiday in France, it seemed like a good time to read this book. It came highly recommended and it didn't disappoint. Rare to find a book of such intellectual breadth that remains concise.

Now I can't claim that I followed every twist and turn. My familiarity with the medieval scholars mentioned and quoted throughout is not what it might be! But I still came away with a useful and stimulating sense of the
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Helen
May 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
A great book, easy to follow and well written. It's interesting to have an understanding of what made something beautiful in the eye of a citizen of the Middle Ages, and indeed how the definition of the word has changed over time.

The one thing I wished had been included, considering this was a book on art and beauty, would be some examples of art from the Middle Ages. I also felt that the book was pretty short, that a topic this broad deserved more than 119 pages.
Chris Griffith
Jan 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Scholarly philosophical survey of aesthetics in the Middle Ages. A short but heavy book delving into the world of scholasticism, mysticism, neo-Platonism, and nominalism with regards to beauty. Reading it was like alchemy. The fact Eco wrote this at age 24 when he was in the Army (pardon the crass metaphor) but it bloweth meh mind!
Kate
Aug 28, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-history, medieval
This highly readable introduction to medieval aesthetics is far more accessible than Eco's fiction. The section on Aquinas is the densest chapter, but it's worth the slog. (Or not, if you just can't stand Aquinas.) Definitely recommended to anyone who is interested in learning more about medieval concepts of art.
Anita
I'll refrain from starring this because a significant percentage of it flew straight over my head (I really need to re-read this book when I'm more familiar with the terminology of medieval theology and philosophy). The parts that I did understand were fascinating and presented beautifully with neutrality & clarity.
Douglas Summers-Stay
Aug 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Umberto Eco considers questions like: what was the role and status of an artist in the middle ages? How did they conceive of creativity? By what standards did they judge things beautiful? Putting aside their theories, what does their writing betray about how they understood beauty? Most of the answers are heavily weighted by how the Church viewed man's relationship with God.
David
May 31, 2016 rated it liked it
The medieval kunstwollen was apparently very kalokagathic.
Daniel
Feb 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
A brief but satisfying introduction to art and beauty in the middle ages. Perhaps most impressive is the intricate metaphysical framework used in expounding the doctrine of beauty.
Kathryn
Lovely and lyrical style, more poetry than prose. A refreshing and enjoyable change of pace from most of the other volumes I read in my Gothic Spirit class!
Keith Brough
Feb 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
very short book, yet contains so much. Interlibrary loan this book today, its worth it.
Tina
Oct 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
here's one i haven't read for almost, could it be...ugh...20 years...but it had a mighty impact at the time.
want to revisit
think i'll love it even more
Gabrielle
Sep 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-history
Remember, Signore Eco, wrote this at a mere 24 years of age. Read it and weep.
Emily Wolahan
Feb 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
He wrote this when he was 26? Really fascinating.
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Umberto Eco was an Italian writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children's books. A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco’s brilliant fiction is known for its playful use of language and symbols, its astonishing array of allusions and references, and clever use of puzzles and narrative inventions. His perceptive essays on modern culture are filled with a delightful ...more
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