On the nose

As an art history student, Caro Verbeek, nicknamed ‘Ringo’ at school because of her own magnificent specimen, came into contact with an enormous variety of beautiful noses: large and small, straight, curved, flat and pointed. Historical research shows that in the past artists often accentuated larger noses. Verbeek demonstrates thematically how much our aesthetic judgement depends on cultural circumstances of which we are often barely aware.

Original title
Een kleine cultuurgeschiedenis van de (grote) neus
Caro Verbeek

Although today’s beauty standards would suggest otherwise, a large nose was once seen as an indicator of intellect, courage, character and status. The Renaissance poet Annibale Caro, for example, wrote the poem ‘Nasea’ in praise of substantial noses. Charles Darwin almost didn’t get a place on The Beagle because he didn’t have a ‘sea-farer’s nose’. The author discovers by comparing different visual sources that Dante’s death mask was manipulated to give him a more convincing ‘poet’s nose’ and that the portrayal of Cleopatra with an eagle’s nose was a political strategy. Fanciful depictions actually show her with different types of nose, from straight to aquiline.

In contrast to men, women with larger noses haven’t always had such an easy time of it. Writer George Eliot’s contemporaries wouldn’t shut up about her ‘manly’ nose. Even today, the Barbie nose is considered perfect in Western culture. A corrective nose job is standard in American culture and a status symbol in Iran. Verbeek herself has experienced the taboo against women with larger noses which do not fit the contemporary take on beauty. Fortunately, her own nose didn’t only give her an inferiority complex, it also lead to an interest in olfactory art.

In On the nose: A Brief Cultural History, Verbeek takes the reader on a journey along notable noses in Western art and culture, from Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Gogol to Barbie, Barbra Streisand and #sideprofileselfie. She concludes that ‘taking a fresh view on the matter, every single nose is perfect – without having to change a thing.’

Verbeek has written a beautiful, evocative hymn to the nose in Western art history and calls on us to embrace different kinds of snoots. She’s right! Women like Streisand and Lady Gaga are, of course, much more interesting to look at than women with doll’s noses.

Het Parool
Caro Verbeek
Caro Verbeek (b 1980) is an internationally-acclaimed art historian and academic. Her PhD project ‘In Search of Lost Scents’ received widespread press coverage. In the 2017 exhibition ‘Aromatic Art (Re-)constructed’ visitors were able to smell the Battle of Waterloo, an 18th-century canal house, medieval prayer nuts, and Futurist and Surrealist olfactory works of art.
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