Italian Beauty: The 19th Century’s View

The question of research interest is whether the standards of beauty are cross-culturally universal or culturally specific to certain nations. Let us investigate the archival legacy of love scholarship (Finck, 1887/2019).  Let us look at how Henry Finck and other authors he cited portrayed Italian beauty in the 19th century.

The form, complexion, and physiognomy in different parts of Italy are more pronounced than in France.

What Are the Origins of Italian Beauty?

As the 19th-century French scientist and writer Louis Figuier noted,

“The barbarian invasions in the north, and the contact with Greeks and Africans in the south, have wrought much alteration in the primitive type of the inhabitants of Italy. Except in Rome and the Roman Campagna, the true type of the primitive Latin population is hardly to be found. The Grecian type exists in the South, and upon the eastern slope of the Apennines, while in the North the great majority of faces are Gallic. In Tuscany and the neighbouring regions are found the descendants of the ancient Etruscans…. The mixture of African blood has changed the organic type of the Southern Italian to such an extent as to render him entirely distinct from his Northern compatriots, the exciting influence which the climate has over the senses imparting to his whole conduct a peculiar exuberance.”

Some scholars have claimed that the aesthetic intoxication that comes from meeting a new type of person causes the raptures and ecstasies of some writers. A few years of living in a place is enough to get rid of these illusions. We can’t trust what the Italians say about their own country because they are biased by local pride. For example, the Milanese say that their city is the most beautiful, while the Venetians, Florentines, Romans, and Neapolitans all toot their own horns.

In one of his letters, an English poet, Lord Byron praised an Italian beauty of the Oriental variety that he had met and adds:

“Whether being in love with her has steeled me or not, I do not know; but I have not seen many other women who seem pretty. The nobility, in particular, are a sad-looking race—the gentry rather better.” In another place he writes that “the general race of women appear to be handsome; but in Italy, as on almost all the Continent, the highest orders are by no means a well-looking generation.”

Are Italian Men More Handsome Than Italian Women?

An Italian anthropologist and physiologist, Professor Paolo Mantegazza, believed that the men were more handsome in Italy than the women.

A Scottish scholar of the 19th century, Sir Charles Bell, noted that

“Raphael, in painting the head of Galatea, found no beauty deserving to be his model; he is reported to have said that there is nothing so rare as perfect beauty in woman; and that he substituted for nature a certain idea inspired by his fancy.”

In the late 1600s, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne traveled to Italy. He was surprised by how few beautiful women and girls he saw. At the time, women and girls were kept in more isolation than in France.

A German author, Dr. J. Volkmann, said in 1770 that,

“there are few beautiful women in Rome, especially among the higher classes; in Venice and Naples more are to be seen. The Italian himself has a proverb which says that Roman women are not beautiful”

(quoted by Ploss, P. 512).