“Italy Was, And Is, Vain”

Botticelli. Portrait of a young man. Fair use

Some time ago a British magazine was joking on the possibility that Italian men might spend more money on cosmetics than British women.

In an earlier post we had supposed a connection between artistic beauty and narcissism in Italian and Latin cultures.

Now an interesting passage from Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897) on Italian outward refinement during the Renaissance.

“The outward appearance of men and women and the habits of daily life were more perfect, more beautiful, and more polished than among the other nations of Europe. The dwellings of the upper classes fall rather within the province of the history of art; but we may note how far the castle and the city mansion in Italy surpassed in comfort, order, and harmony the dwellings of the northern noble.

Botticelli. Simonetta Vespucci. Fair use

The style of dress varied so continually that it is impossible to make any complete comparison with the fashions of other countries, all the more because since the close of the fifteenth century imitations of the latter were frequent. The costumes of the time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient, and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe; but we cannot be sure if they represent the prevalent fashion, or if they are faithfully reproduced by the artist. It is nevertheless beyond a doubt that nowhere was so much importance attached to dress as in Italy.

The nation was, and is, vain; and even serious men among it looked on a handsome and becoming costume as an element in the perfection of the individual.

(…) We may note in particular the efforts of the women to alter their appearance by all the means which the toilette could afford. In no country of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was so much trouble taken to modify the face, the colour of the skin and the growth of the hair, as in Italy at this time.

(…) The use of perfumes went beyond all reasonable limits. They were applied to everything with which human beings came into contact. At festivals even the mules were treated with scents and ointments, and Pietro Aretino thanks Cosimo I for a perfumed roll of money.”

Note. Quote from Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878. Available as Gutenberg text.

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If you want to know more:

Can Narcissism Partially Explain the Cult of Beauty in Latin Cultures?
Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Can Narcissism Partially Explain the Cult of Beauty in Latin Cultures?

Fernando Roca Rey, a Peruvian Torero

Conrad Phillips. Hi Man of Roma, I just came across your blog as I was learning about polyphonic music. I bookmarked your interest in Montaigne and like the Platonic dialogue connection (…) How does Montaigne and narcissism fit into your background? [here the original conversation, MoR]

Man of Roma. Well, narcissism was a sort of a jest in my bio info page, although there is some annoying narcissism in the Mediterranean people, living in the sun, something for example the Britons, from clouds and rough weather, reproach us, not without reason.

But the beauty of classical or Renaissance art cannot be quite understood without considering a certain narcissistic component, in my view. Works of art (like Palladio’s villas or palaces, for example, see the London exhibition) were mainly for great families who sought distinction, éclat. The elegance of a Julius Caesar (here is a post considering this aspect of him), or of most toreros for example, or of the French, who love to correct foreigners who speak their language, can be explained by some vanity as well. It may be a Roman and Greek thing, I don’t want to ennoble it, quite the contrary, but it is in us [see below Narcissus by the painter Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610].

Narcissus by Caravaggio. Click for credits

Montaigne is a constant dialogue I have. He mythicizes the ancient world as much as I do, he talks of himself without any self-love, a sort of high level country philosopher, and a spontaneous philosopher.

I often prefer ideas that unfold, like his do, through scattered notes rather than finished books, more sedentary in my view and less thought provoking.

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Related posts:

“Italy Was, And Is, Vain”