Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Culture

January 20, 2011

Naomi Baker's handsome volume is a warts-and-all account of an overlooked feature of Renaissance studies: facial discrimination. Plain Ugly sounds like it should, by rights, come in a plain wrapper. In the event, its cover is not only striking but deceptive, showing Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting Old Man with a Young Boy (c. 1490). The portrait of a bumpy-nosed man holding a flaxen-haired youth is more an image of ageing than ugliness, as age and beauty are intertwined. The elderly and infirm, like the female and foreign, are at the heart of negative representations of the body in the period.

An attractive feature of this book is its lightly worn scholarship; indeed, it is surprising to note that almost one-quarter is occupied by notes and bibliography. Baker's aim is to "investigate representations of the unattractive human body in early modern English culture, examining in particular the role played by depictions of the unsightly body in the construction of specific modes of identity". Her argument is that "representations of ugliness...illuminate wider constructions of identity in early modern England". Philosophical works such as Francis Bacon's essay "Of Deformity" (1612) and Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) are read alongside literary texts by Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton and others.

Baker asks: "Is ugliness in the eye of the beholder?", couching this question in the context of a culture where religion suggests that all God's creatures are beautiful, yet where appearances are everything. An open invitation to aesthetic otherness coexists with ridicule and intolerance, the one appearing to supplant the other.

Philip Sidney's remark in An Apology for Poetry (1595) that "We laugh at deformed creatures wherein certainly we cannot delight" anticipates Samuel Johnson's 1775 dictionary definition of "deformity" as "the quality of something worthy to be laughed at". Edmund Burke's approach - "Ugliness I imagine...to be consistent enough with the idea of the sublime" - dovetails with Roland Barthes' comments on the grotesque paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Likewise, the Marquis de Sade's assertion that "beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity the extraordinary to the commonplace" chimes with Julia Kristeva's claim that ugliness as a feature of abjection conjures up "the impure, the non-separate, the non-symbolic, the non-holy".

There are fascinating passages on physiognomy, from the furrowed brow as warning sign in Richard Saunders' Physiognomie and Chiromancie (1653) - "This is the character of a murderer" - to the mark of Cain and the ways in which the less able-bodied are marked out as at once disquietingly repugnant and dangerously seductive. Beauty and ugliness are equally treacherous in Spenser's Faerie Queene, where Duessa, "loathly, wrinkled hag, ill favoured, old", is no less hazardous than Acrasia's Bower of Bliss.

Gender is key. Although Baker doesn't address John Bale's "monstrous regiment of women", male empowerment often entails denigration of women. Leonardo da Vinci recommended depicting old women "with aggressive, quick, and wild gestures, like infernal furies". Racism and misogyny face off in the fittingly named John Hagthorpe's verse on Sinne and Vertue (1623), extending the familiar conceit of make-up as deceit: "A cunning baite to catch th'improvident;/ She's under it an Ethiopian".

In Paradise Lost, Milton's Sin appears as monstrously female - "woman to the waist, and fair,/But ended foul in many a scaly fold/Voluminous and vast". Baker exposes how sexism underpins the imagery of imputed ugliness: "Abusive descriptions of repulsive women from the early modern era...focus on the unattractive woman's tendency to breach the borders of subjectivity". Writers such as the poet Aemilia Lanyer challenge male stereotyping, yet persist in blaming beauty for provoking desire. Heads you lose, tails you don't win.

None of the evidence sifted is taken at face value. Baker probes beneath the surface to excavate the deeper cultural concerns undergirding aesthetic anxieties. This book is much more appealing than its subject matter suggests, and is a contribution to cultural studies as well as to a neglected aspect of early modernity. A critic who flits so effortlessly from Bacon and Burton to Mikhail Bakhtin, Barthes and Judith Butler certainly deserves a broad readership.

Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Culture

By Naomi Baker. Manchester University Press 256pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780719068744. Published 1 August 2010

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