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From Jacob Burckhardt's 2nd edition of the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy; edited for this on-line publication, by ELLOPOS
Part Four: Discovery of the World and of Man
Description of the Outward Man
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Part Four: The Discovery of the World and of Man » Journeys of the Italians » The Natural Sciences in Italy » Discovery of the Beauty of the Landscape » Discovery of Man » Biography in the Middle Ages » Description of the Outward Man » Description of Human Life
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.
Cf. The Ancient Greece * The Ancient Rome
The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) * The Making of Europe