Lugubrious: The Dawn of Melancholy

Lugubrious – from the Latin lugubris, from lugēre to mourn; akin to Greek lygros – mournful – apparently first used in 1585, meaning mournful, gloomy, but especially and theatrically gloomy.  If the 1585 date is true, the use of this word pre-dates the publication of Robert Burton’s famous Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, and one senses that self-conscious and perhaps cathartic sadness was a Baroque elaboration of emotion, akin to its exaggeration in every other form of expression.  What began with lugubriousness gave way to the whole strategy of sadnesses that define melancholy, itself derived from  Middle English malencolie, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin melancholia, from Greek, from melan- + cholē bile – an excess of black bile.  Once again, in the history of the humours, science substitutes for bodily substances.  

Although sad, cold, dry and wintry in character, the ancients, even into the Renaissance, believed that melancholy was the true font of creativity, because melancholy bred solitude, thoughtfulness and reflection; the true artist was therefore a melancholic, born under the aegis of Saturn, ruler over the most distant of planets, dancing on the edges of perception, and ruling over Winter which appears fallow, but awakens into spring with new growth. 

“Melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness.” 
― Italo Calvino

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About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist
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