Bacon's essays: Of Beauty

I somewhat suspect Bacon wrote Of Beauty so that he could write the next one, Of Deformity. But we’ll talk about that next month.

Virtue first

Bacon was reared by a strict Calvinist. He can’t talk about appearances without first making sure we understand that inner beauty is more important.jewel

“Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set…” This is one of his more famous quotes. The usual interpretation, I think, is that virtue is beauty enough. Virtue is like a jewel. But it also means that virtue won’t show in a beautiful face, because you’ll be distracted by all that beauty.

He continues: “and surely virtue is best, in a body that is comely, though not of delicate features; and that hath rather dignity of presence, than beauty of aspect.”

This is getting rather detailed. Is he looking in a mirror? But no, Bacon wasn’t vain. Arrogant, yes, by all accounts, but not vain. Elizabethans believed the outer person reflected the inner character. So Virtue can’t be beautiful, or you won’t see it, but it can’t be ugly, either. That just wouldn’t make sense. Ugly, deformed people are wicked somewhere deep inside.

Beautiful people are seldom great

King Edward IV

“Neither is it almost seen, that very beautiful persons are otherwise of great virtue; as if nature were rather busy, not to err, than in labor to produce excellency. And therefore they prove accomplished, but not of great spirit; and study rather behavior, than virtue.”

They don’t have to be accomplished, do they? Things get given to them. There are lots of studies about the impact of attractiveness on success. It helps, is the message. But being good at what you do also helps, so don’t take that as an excuse to lie down and do nothing if you don’t look like the people on TV.

There are exceptions, as Bacon notes. “Augustus Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Belle of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, Ismael the Sophy of Persia, were all high and great spirits; and yet the most beautiful men of their times.”

Shah Ismail I, Sophy of Persia

Really? I need to have a look at these fellows. And may I just note that I’ve always wanted to be the Sophy of Austin? I just truly love that title. Definitely don’t want the responsibility, though. Just the hat.

I’m skipping Augustus Caesar ‘cuz I had enough Roman emperors last time. There’s no sculpture of Alcibiades, so he must have established quite a reputation! His Wikipedia page says nothing about beauty. He was an able speaker, in spite of his lisp, and an unruly youth. Humph.

Edward the Fourth of England? Really not seeing it. Shah Ismael of Persia was quite the hottie, however. Two more… No portrait of Philip le Belle (Philip II), though he was described as a handsome, strapping fellow. Titus Vespasianus has busts and this fine full-length statue. He was quite the globe-trotter. He served in Britannia and in Judea, where he had an illicit affair with Queen Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa. Well, well, well.

Titus Vespasianus in his birthday suit

The best part of beauty

“In beauty, that of favor, is more than that of color; and that of decent and gracious motion, more than that of favor.”

dancersSo, better to have a shapely nose than a porcelain complexion (which you can achieve with zinc), and better to be graceful and decorous (seemly) of motion than to have nice features. Hm. We tend to go with the pretty face, but we are all hooked on images, which focus on faces, rather than on watching people in motion. Unless they’re dancing.

Ha! He anticipated that thought there: “That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express.” The movements, the ineffable qualities. Whatever it is that shows character.

On the other hand, “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” If the proportions are too perfect, too regular, the face is uninteresting and thus not really beautiful. Maybe he thinks beauty should have a touch of mystery?

“A man shall see faces, that if you examine them part by part, you shall find never a good; and yet altogether do well.” For Bacon, this follows on his observation that beauty of motion is best.

Judi Dench

“though persons in years seem many times more amiable; pulchrorum autumnus pulcher...” [the autumn of the beautiful is beautiful.] That’s interesting and, I think, true. I wish more actors and actresses could recognize this rule. They make hard caricatures of their beautiful faces with plastic surgery, so then they look like e.g. somebody wearing a really freaky Burt Reynolds mask.

Bacon goes on to say, “… for no youth can be comely but by pardon, and considering the youth, as to make up the comeliness.” No idea what this means! I think he means that true beauty is only found through acts — decent motion — and, underneath it all, virtue. Young people might be virtuous, but they haven’t done anything yet. So their beauty is superficial. 

Or maybe he means, they haven’t lived enough for their character to show on their faces. He wrote this in his sixties, I think. You do tend to think that all young people are beautiful, by virtue of their dewy young faces. But I remember not thinking that at all when I was young.

The obligatory moral

“Beauty is as summer fruits, which are easy to corrupt, and cannot last; and for the most part it makes a dissolute youth, and an age a little out of countenance; but yet certainly again, if it light well, it maketh virtue shine, and vices blush.”

Beautiful youths don’t achieve things, they’re given things. But if beauty happens upon a virtuous person, it adds luster and helps to repel vice.

Pix & note: Fontainebleau

I visited the magnificent Château de Fontainebleau in May. It was a gorgeous sunny day, hot by mid-afternoon, even by Texas standards. Fabulous rich blue sky for photography! We went in the middle of the week, but being a World Heritage Site, it was full of people, including many groups of French schoolchildren sitting on the floor listening to their teachers.

A few words to the wise traveler

It’s a big palace; there’s room for everyone. You travel in a single line through the rooms, looping back at one point, confusingly. There are people fore and aft, but you can tuck yourself out of the path to study some detail or soak it all in. Everyone is very tolerant of photography these days. Though it is hard to take pictures of whole rooms, there are so many people and the light is pretty dim.

My usual strategy is to get to these places at opening time. Alas, I planned poorly. It took forever to find the right place in the Gare du Nord. You’d think there’d be signs for tourists going to a World Heritage Site, but no. Mom and I had to wander across three floors even to find an information desk that could give us the correct information. Then we needed correct change to buy tickets from a kiosk and had to run fast to catch the train. “Vite, vite, Madam!” the lady cried to my 86-year-old mother. Luckily, she’s fleet of foot.font2

Also, buy your tickets in advance, for the specific date you will go. France is lovely, there’s no denying it, but something is always on strike, half the things you want to see will be closed and the rest will be understaffed. There was 1 (ONE) woman working the ticket desk at this World Heritage Site on a sunny day in May. We waited in line for 40 minutes. Luckily, I had this fancy window latch to contemplate while we stood stock still for no apparent reason. This is what we call detailed craftsmanship.

It would also be a good idea to bring food and water. The restaurant was closed and there is no cafe. All they had for lunch was French breakfast tacos (ham and cheese crepes) served from a cart. So it’s France, so it’s excellent ham and cheese, but still.

History of the magnificent palace

Fontainebleau started out as a hunting lodge, convenient to the large royal forests around Paris. In 1137, it was called Fontem Blauhad, believe it or not, which means the spring or fountainhead of a person named Blizwald. Wikipedia tells us this with a straight face, so we must believe it.

Francis I (1494–1547) turned the hunting chateau into a palace of exceptional splendor. If you think that window latch is stylish, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! Not one square inch of this place has been left undecorated. Also, we find the ‘F’ for ‘Francis’ absolutely everywhere, in case later generations forgot who built the place.

Every monarch from Francis to Louis XV (sweetly known as Louis the Beloved) added their own touches. The Beloved died in 1774, just before the whole monarchy situation went south. The palace is vast; we only get to tour a portion of it.

Francis is the one who imported the new Renaissance architectural style to France, as interpreted by his architect, Gilles le Breton. It’s a brilliant style; quintessentially French and handsome. Paris is full of buildings like this. That’s a large part of its eternal charm.

French Renaissance style

There is a still a large and scenic forest called Fontainebleau, to which Parisians regularly resort. I didn’t see it. If I’d been on my own, I would’ve done some hiking in there. But this wasn’t a research trip. I dragged my mother out to this busy place because it was there in Francis Bacon’s day. He probably spent some time there in his late teens. His cousin, Robert Cecil, certainly visited on diplomatic missions in the 1590s.

We start with an overview, swiped from the web somewhere. I do not have an aeroplane.

The red arrow on the right shows the entrance (lockers, tickets, guards). The other arrow shows where you exit. The display rooms run in a line on the second floor (first in British terms). We walk along to the horseshoe stairs and then go through the gallery connecting the front palace to the rear palace and then take a right (hook a roscoe, in Chicago terms). The chapel is on the other side there somewhere. I must confess the topography has me foxed. I’ll scan and post the floorplan. 

Enter on the right; exit on the left.
Extra housing for courtiers
The famous horseshoe staircase
One more long shot and then we’re going inside.


The tour

The main idea is to regulate the flow of tourists, both modern and, I suspect, early modern. Elizabeth’s palaces were tourist attractions in her day; no reason this one wouldn’t have been. One of the functions of a magnificent palace to is show foreign visitors how magnificent you are.


Let’s see. The yellow building in the lower right portion of the palace houses some exhibits about Napoleon, which are very interesting unless you are focused on the late 16th century. Napoleon who? says me.

The bookshop is the last stop on the tour, unhelpfully, so I didn’t have this plan while we were cruising through. The thing that most interested me was the progression of rooms leading to the monarch. First the outer guard room, relatively plain (nothing here is really plain), then the inner guard room, for guards of greater rank, one supposes. Then we have presence chamber, private presence chamber, reception room, bedroom, another bedroom, and then we exit through rooms in the reverse order, ending with another guard room. Or that’s how it seemed to go.

It was hard to take pictures of rooms and I don’t want to scan the whole book. So we’ll just dip into the photo pool and take potluck instead of trying to reproduce the tour.


A place to confer and to wait.
Armless chairs for ladies in huge dresses.
The gallery where we stroll in bad weather and mingle in all seasons.
The minstrel gallery in the great ballroom.
The chapel, shorn of all religious frippery.
The mind-blowing library.


The people who invented Art Nouveaux must have seen this.
A typical bit of wall.
A typical bit of ceiling.
Some famous person’s bed. Note the mirror on the inside. Kinky? Or just vain?
His Majesty will see you now.
A lion AND a dragon, in case you thought Francis was a wimp.
This, because artists can be hard to keep on topic.
This, because Francis could have ridden an elephant everywhere if he wanted to — which he didn’t.
The little angel who said, “Meh.”
This guy just sits in the gateway, mouth eternally open, with his oddly Vulcan ears.


The Château de Fontainebleau. 2008. Connaissance des Arts.

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