The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878



Description of the Outward Man

But the discoveries made with regard to man were not confined to the spiritual characteristics of individuals and nations; his outward appearance was in Italy the subject of an entirely different interest from that shown in it by northern peoples.

Of the position held by the great Italian physicians with respect to the progress of physiology, we cannot venture to speak; and the artistic study of the human figure belongs, not to a work like the present, but to the history of art. But something must here be said of that universal education of the eye, which rendered the judgement of the Italians as to bodily beauty or ugliness perfect and final.

On reading the Italian authors of that period attentively, we are astounded at the keenness and accuracy with which outward features are seized, and at the completeness with which personal appearance in general is described. Even today the Italians, and especially the Romans, have the art of sketching a man's picture in a couple of words. This rapid apprehension of what is characteristic is an essential condition for detecting and representing the beautiful. In poetry, it is true, circumstantial description may be a fault, not a merit, since a single feature, suggested by deep passion or insight, will often awaken in the reader a far more powerful impression of the figure described. Dante gives us nowhere a more splendid idea of his Beatrice than where he only describes the influence which goes forth from her upon all around. But here we have not to treat particularly of poetry, which follows its own laws and pursues its own ends, but rather of the general capacity to paint in words real or imaginary forms.

In this Boccaccio is a master--not in the 'Decameron,' where the character of the tales forbids lengthy description, but in the romances, where he is free to take his time. In his 'Ameto' he describes a blonde and a brunette much as an artist a hundred years later would have painted them--for here, too, culture long precedes art. In the account of the brunette--or, strictly speaking, of the less blonde of the two--there are touches which deserve to be called classical. In the words 'la spaziosa testa e distesa' lies the feeling for grander forms, which go beyond a graceful prettiness; the eyebrows with him no longer resemble two bows, as in the Byzantine ideal, but a single wavy line; the nose seems to have been meant to be aquiline; the broad, full breast, the arms of moderate length, the effect of the beautiful hand, as it lies on the purple mantle--all this foretells the sense of beauty of a coming time, and unconsciously approaches to that of classical antiquity. In other descriptions Boccaccio mentions a flat (not medievally rounded) brow, a long, earnest, brown eye, and round, not hollowed neck, as well as--in a very modern tone--the 'little feet' and the 'two roguish eyes' of a black-haired nymph.

Whether the fifteenth century has left any written account of its ideal of beauty, I am not able to say. The works of the painters and sculptors do not render such an account as unnecessary as might appear at first sight, since possibly, as opposed to their realism, a more ideal type might have been favored and preserved by the writers. In the sixteenth century Firenzuola came forward with his remarkable work on female beauty. We must clearly distinguish in it what he had learned from old authors or from artists, such as the fixing of proportions according to the length of the head, and certain abstract conceptions. What remains is his own genuine observation, illustrated with examples of women and girls from Prato. As his little work is a kind of lecture, delivered before the women of this city--that is to say, before very severe critics--he must have kept pretty closely to the truth. His principle is avowedly that of Zeuxis and of Lucian--to piece together an ideal beauty out of a number of beautiful parts. He defines the shades of color which occur in the hair and skin, and gives to the 'biondo' the preference, as the most beautiful color for the hair, understanding by it a soft yellow, inclining to brown. He requires that the hair should be thick, long, and locky; the forehead serene, and twice as broad as high; the skin bright and clear (candida), but not of a dead white (bianchezza); the eyebrows dark, silky, most strongly marked in the middle, and shading off towards the ears and the nose; the white of the eye faintly touched with blue, the iris not actually black, though all the poets praise 'occhi neri' as a gift of Venus, despite that even goddesses were known for their eyes of heavenly blue, and that soft, joyous, brown eyes were admired by everybody. The eye itself should be large and full and brought well forward; the lids white, and marked with almost invisible tiny red veins; the lashes neither too long, nor too thick, nor too dark. The hollow round the eye should have the same color as the cheek. The ear, neither too large nor too small, firmly and neatly fitted on, should show a stronger color in the winding than in the even parts, with an edge of the transparent ruddiness of the pomegranate. The temples must be white and even, and for the most perfect beauty ought not to be too narrow. The red should grow deeper as the cheek gets rounder. The nose, which chiefly determines the value of the profile, must recede gently and uniformly in the direction of the eyes; where the cartilage ceases, there may be a slight elevation, but not so marked as to make the nose aquiline, which is not pleasing in women; the lower part must be less strongly colored than the ears, but not of a chilly whiteness, and the middle partition above the lips lightly tinted with red. The mouth, our author would have rather small, and neither projecting to a point, nor quite flat, with the lips not too thin, and fitting neatly together; an accidental opening, that is, when the woman is neither speaking nor laughing, should not display more than six upper teeth. As delicacies of detail, he mentions a dimple in the upper lip, a certain fullness of the under lip, and a tempting smile in the left corner of the mouth--and so on. The teeth should not be too small, regular, well marked off from one another, and of the color of ivory; and the gums must not be too dark or even like red velvet. The chin is to be round, neither pointed nor curved outwards, and growing slightly red as it rises; its glory is the dimple. The neck should be white and round and rather long than short, with the hollow and the Adam's apple but faintly marked; and the skin at every movement must show pleasing lines. The shoulders he desires broad, and in the breadth of the bosom sees the first condition of its beauty. No bone may be visible upon it, its fall and swell must be gentle and gradual, its color 'candidissimo.' The leg should be long and not too hard in the lower parts, but still not without flesh on the shin, which must be provided with white, full calves. He likes the foot small, but not bony, the instep (it seems) high, and the color white as alabaster. The arms are to be white, and in the upper parts tinted with red; in their consistence fleshy and muscular, but still soft as those of Pallas, when she stood before the shepherd on Mount Ida--in a word, ripe, fresh, and firm. The hand should be white, especially towards the wrist, but large and plump, feeling soft as silk, the rosy palm marked with a few, but distinct and not intricate lines; the elevations in it should be not too great, the space between thumb and forefinger brightly colored and without wrinkles, the fingers long, delicate, and scarcely at all thinner towards the tips, with nails clear, even, not too long nor to square, and cut so as to show a white margin about the breadth of a knife's back.

Aesthetic principles of a general character occupy a very subordinate place to these particulars. The ultimate principles of beauty, according to which the eye judges 'senza appello,' are for Firenzuola a secret, as he frankly confesses; and his definitions of 'Leggiadria,' 'Grazia,' 'Aria,' 'Maesta,' 'Vaghezza,' 'Venusta,' are partly, as has been remarked, philological, and partly vain attempts to utter the unutterable. Laughter he prettily defines, probably following some old author, as a radiance of the soul. The literature of all countries can, at the close of the Middle Ages, show single attempts to lay down theoretic principles of beauty; but no other work can be compared to that of Firenzuola. Brantome, who came a good half-century later, is a bungling critic by his side, because governed by lasciviousness and not by a sense of beauty.