Beauty is a fickle mistress. For the ancient Greeks it was a pale complexion, courtesy of a thick layer of poisonous white lead; for 16th-century Italians Titian’s well-rounded “Venus of Urbino” was the last word in female beauty; and today glossy magazines glorify wide-eyed teenage waifs. “Beauty,” wrote Umberto Eco in his study of European aesthetics On Beauty (2004), “has never been absolute and immutable but has taken on different aspects depending on the historical period and the country.” Yet if the definition of beauty is ever shifting, how can we make sense of its significance? Perhaps the easiest solution is to dismiss the concept of beauty as human folly. Dostoyevsky observed that “beauty is the battlefield where God and the Devil war for the soul of man”, and others have seen our obsession with beauty as merely a flaw to be ironed out through religion or moral instruction. Vanity has been pilloried for its meaningless transience, from the Bible to 16th-century Flemish paintings. Rosie Boycott, a founder of the 1970s feminist magazine Spare Rib, hoped that women would become less obsessed with their looks, as fellow feminists rallied against the oppressive cosmetics industry which, they believed, forced women to aspire to be beautiful. But these criticisms have had no visible effect on our love affair with beauty. From the writers, philosophers and artists who have studied its meaning to the glossy magazines and cosmetics-obsessed consumers who fund a multibillion-dollar industry, for each generation the mystery of beauty remains a subject irresistible to scrutiny, as three recent books show.

more from Nicola Copping at the FT here.