On Ugliness  

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On Ugliness (It: Storia della bruttezza) by Umberto Eco is an cultural history book first published in October 2007. On Ugliness is a study of the concept of ugliness through time, an analysis of an idea through its manifestation in visual art, literature, and to a lesser extent in architecture and photography. The subject has been covered before on works on the grotesque by such authors as Wolfgang Kayser in his The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Notably absent from this book is work by Posada and d'Agoty.



On the cover is the Ill-Matched Lovers (c. 1520/1525) by Quentin Matsys, depicting a dirty old man fondling a maiden.

Book description

From the publisher

"In the mold of his acclaimed History of Beauty, renowned cultural critic Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness is an exploration of the monstrous and the repellant in visual culture and the arts. What is the voyeuristic impulse behind our attraction to the gruesome and the horrible? Where does the magnetic appeal of the sordid and the scandalous come from? Is ugliness also in the eye of the beholder? Eco’s encyclopedic knowledge and captivating storytelling skills combine in this ingenious study of the Ugly, revealing that what we often shield ourselves from and shun in everyday life is what we’re most attracted to subliminally. Topics range from Milton’s Satan to Goethe’s Mephistopheles; from witchcraft and medieval torture tactics to martyrs, hermits, and penitents; from lunar births and disemboweled corpses to mythic monsters and sideshow freaks; and from Decadentism and picturesque ugliness to the tacky, kitsch, and camp, and the aesthetics of excess and vice. With abundant examples of painting and sculpture ranging from ancient Greek amphorae to Bosch, Brueghel, and Goya among others, and with quotations from the most celebrated writers and philosophers of each age, this provocative discussion explores in-depth the concepts of evil, depravity, and darkness in art and literature."
This book is the follow up to the previous volume, "On Beauty". Apparently beauty and ugliness are concepts that imply each other, and by ugliness we usually mean the opposite of beauty, so all we need do is define the first to understand the nature of the second. But the various manifestations of ugliness over the centuries are richer and more unpredictable than is commonly thought. The anthological quotations and the extraordinary illustrations in this book lead us on a surprising journey among the nightmares, terrors, and loves of almost three thousand years, where acts of rejection go hand in hand with touching gestures of compassion, and the rejection of deformity is accompanied by decadent ecstasies over the most seductive violations of all classical canons.Among demons, madmen, horrible enemies, and disquieting presences, among horrid abysses and deformities that verge on the sublime, among freaks and the living dead, we discover a vast and often unsuspected iconographic vein. So much so that, on gradually encountering in these pages the ugliness of nature, spiritual ugliness, asymmetry, disharmony, disfigurement, and the succession of things sordid, weak, vile, banal, random, arbitrary, coarse, repugnant, clumsy, horrendous, vacuous, nauseating, criminal, spectral, witchlike, satanic, repellent, disgusting, unpleasant, grotesque, abominable, odious, crude, foul, dirty, obscene, frightening, abject, monstrous, hair-raising, ugly, terrible, terrifying, revolting, repulsive, loathsome, fetid, ignoble, awkward, ghastly and indecent, the first foreign publisher to see this book exclaimed: 'How beautiful ugliness is!'


Unlike beauty, ugliness has not been the subject of extended aesthetic research: while in every century philosophers and artists have provided numerous definitions of beauty, ugliness has been relegated to marginal notes and referred to mostly in opposition to beauty.

Mentioned: Fredric Brown's science fiction short story "Sentry":

"Then I saw one of them creeping towards me. I aimed my weapon and opened fire on it. The enemy gave that strange horrible cry that all of them used to utter. Then a deathly silence. It was dead. The cry and the sight of the dead body made me shudder. In the course of time, many of us had become accustomed, took no notice of that; but not me. They were horrible disgusting creatures, with only two legs, two arms, two eyes, that sickening white skin and without scales!"

Original version (the translators of Eco's book probably did a back-translation):

"And then he saw one of them crawling toward him. He drew a bead and fired. The alien made that strange horrible sound they all make, then lay still. He shuddered at the sound and sight of the alien lying there. One ought to be able to get used to them after a while, but he'd never been able to. Such repulsive creatures they were, with only two arms and two legs, ghastly white skins and no scales."

Ugliness in the Classical World

  • A World Dominated by Beauty?
  • The Greek World and Horror

Passion, Death, Martyrdom

  • The ``Pancalistic View of the Universe
  • The Suffering of Christ
  • Martyrs, Hermits, Penitents
  • The Triumph of Death

The Apocalypse, Hell, and the Devil

  • A Universe of Horrors
  • Hell
  • The Metamorphoses of the Devil

Monsters and Portents

  • Prodigies and Monsters
  • An Aesthetic of the Immeasurable
  • The Moralization of Monsters
  • The Mirabilia
  • The Fate of Monsters

The Ugly, the Comic, and the Obscene

  • Priapus
  • Satires on the Peasantry and Carnival
  • Festivities
  • Renaissance and Liberation
  • Caricature

The Ugliness of Woman from Antiquity to the Baroque Period

ugly woman, old woman

Illustrations to this chapter include:

The Anti-Female Tradition

Mannerism and the Baroque

Mannerism, Baroque

The Devil in the Modern World

  • From Rebellious Satan to Poor
  • Mephistopheles
  • The Demonization of the Enemy

Witchcraft, Satanism, Sadism

  • Witches
  • Satanism, Sadism, and the Taste for Cruelty

Physica curiosa

Romanticism and the Redemption of Ugliness

  • The Philosophies of Ugliness
  • The Ugly and the Damned
  • The Ugly and the Unhappy
  • The Unhappy and the III

The Uncanny

Iron Towers and Ivory Towers

The Avant-Garde and the Triumph of Ugliness

See cult of ugliness

The Ugliness of Others, Kitsch, and Camp

Ugliness Today

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