You Learned Beauty

Sunset at Land’s End in San Francisco–a Wikicommons photo by Mila Zinkova

Everyone loves a beautiful sunset or a view of the countryside with mountains and rivers, don’t they?

No. And for most of man’s time on this earth, through countless generations, he never even gave them a second look.

“The Italians,” says Jakob Burckhardt in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, are the first among modern peoples by whom the outward world was seen and felt as something beautiful. The power to do so is always the result of a long and complicated development…”

Burckhardt then gives the ancient world, starting with Homer, as an example of one of the rare periods in history. The next one, he says, was the Italian Renaissance.

Detail of The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci

Storm by Leonardo da Vinci

“By the year 1200, at the height of the Middle Ages, a genuine, hearty enjoyment of the external world was again in existence, and found lively expression in the minstrelsy of different nations, which gives evidence of the sympathy felt with all the simple phenomena of nature—spring with its flowers, the green fields, and the woods. But these pictures are [as yet] all foreground without perspective. The epic poetry, which describes armor and customs so fully, does not attempt more than a sketch of outward nature……From these poems it would never be guessed that their noble authors in all countries inhabited or visited lofty castles commanding distant prospects.”

Landscape by Leonardo da Vinci  (Uffizi, Florence, Italy)

Burckhardt even goes so far as to claim that Dante, the poet of The Divine Comedy, was the first man since the days of antiquity “to make the ascent of lofty peaks, with the only possible object of enjoying the view”.


See What is Beauty?



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10 Responses to You Learned Beauty

  1. wrjones says:

    I don’t think most people notice the beauty of nature. It is definately a learned appreciation. After I pointed out how light strikes the tree tops, a single weed, a spot of water, etc. over and over to my wife, she has started looking for them herself.

  2. cantueso says:

    I would expect people to appreciate nature once they live in cities and offices. As long as they are part of nature, they mostly have to fight it, watch it as an enemy and try to grab food from it.

    The American thing could be an exception, all those European city slickers going there and then facing immense and all-powerful nature.

  3. wpm1955 says:

    I read a book about someone who lived in Goa, India. They told in the book about how the homes there are built with their backs facing the sea, because people DON’T want to see ocean views. In Goa, it’s considered that BAD things come from the sea, which is the reason behind this viewpoint.

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  4. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: Did you read what Betancourt had to say about her stint in the jungle? “A terrible, hostile environment, full of attacking animals. You have to wear a hat because all kinds of bugs and things constantly fall on your head and bite or sting. Put your hand down on the ground to keep from falling and it lands on a taratula or a snake. The plants themselves sting or burn or hide some vicious animal. It is a constant struggle.” No wonder the old folks didn’t sit back of an evening and enjoy the sunset.

  5. rich says:

    Your quotation, Swallows, of Jakob Burckhardt, about the Renaissance, reminded me of a similar statement by an Indian philosopher, in a book called “The Future Poetry”, where it is written:

    “The Renaissance meant many things and it meant too different things in different countries, but one thing above all everywhere, the discovery of beauty and joy in every energy of life. The Middle Ages had lived strongly and with a sort of deep and sombre force, but, as it were, always under the shadow of death and under the burden of an obligation to aspire through suffering to a beyond; their life is bordered on one side by the cross and on the other by the sword. The Renaissance brings in the sense of a liberation from the burden and the obligation; it looks at life and loves it in excess; it is carried away by the beauty of the body and the senses and the intellect, the beauty of sensation and action and speech and thought, – of thought hardly at all for its own sake, but thought as a power of life. It is Hellenism returning with its strong sense of humanity and things human, nihil humani alienum, but at first a barbarised Hellenism, unbridled and extravagant, riotous in its vitalistic energy, too much overjoyed for restraint and measure.”

  6. 100swallows says:

    Rich: you didn’t say who the Indian was–not that I would know him. I wonder where he is headed with this and what he thinks the poetry of the future will be.

  7. rich says:

    You are right. A not often quoted source, Sri Aurobindo the author.
    Thought the quotation might tally with what has been said here about the sense of beauty during the renaissance. May be it doesn’t.
    The man is an expert on English poetry. What he means by “The Future Poetry” would be hard to decribe in a nutshell.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    It’s funny, though maybe not unexpected, that I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘subject’ of art recently. That’s because I’ve actively chosen a very low category of subject by almost all previous European standards: animals, specifically birds. Most likely this is not as true in the Far East.

    I had been thinking along somewhat parallel lines to you in that changing subject matter, especially that which sees nature as something to be enjoyed, is a sign of higher civilization, or maybe better safer civilization. Who can admire and draw spiders when most of your life you’ve spent much energy avoiding the dangerous ones? I’m sure my thoughts are influenced as well by some environmental literature I’ve read recently. I recall reading somewhere, maybe The Wildlife Art Journal, about the huge decline of diversity in nature making this a time where nature itself, not just a picturesque view of nature, is becoming more and more important as subject.

    As I recall the article I read was also proselytizing to some degree. But it got me thinking that this is how the subject of art changes over time. Perhaps we are living in a time where nature, as portrayal of individual species, not nature as the picturesque will become a more important theme of art. Obviously we can never know. Such changes are only visible in the future not the present. And it might also be wishful thinking on my part. But either way I think our thoughts have converged a bit here on how the ‘subjects’ of art are ever-changing.

    Beautiful illustrations by the way, except for the sunset, which I’ve never much liked anyway.

    P.S. Speaking of changing subjects what about light as subject? I remember one of the first of your posts that I responded to was on Vermeer. I’ve always thought that Vermeer’s primary subject was light. But where did that come from? Why did light all of a sudden become a subject of art, or was it not really so sudden. I leave that subject as a melon for another post.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. That’s an enormous melon (two actually) and I keep looking at it, can’t decide to open it. Let me think some more. Sorry about the sunset. Maybe I can find one of my own landscape photos.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Sorry it has taken me so long to open this melon. I got stuck on the word “nature”.
      For all their mystifying of nature and the universe I don’t think people look for guidance there any more. It is simply a fascinating puzzle. Americans still have a lot of it to contemplate but here in Europe The Great Outdoors is far away—a place to go to in summer or to escape to on weekends (cf. Yeats’ “I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree…”
      It’s true that the birds and household pets keep the strangeness of nature present for many and maybe you are right that more and more they will become a subject for art. But it is hard to think of animal pictures that provoke the kind of philosophical reflection that art is all about.
      As for when light became a subject for painting, I’ll leave that melon closed for now.
      I envy you your hikes in the wilderness.

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