The Kiss and Its History, Kristoffer Nyrop

The Kiss, Auguste Rodin, 1898

In 1898, French sculptor Auguste Rodin produced a marble sculpture of a 13th-century Italian noblewoman Francesca Da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, two unfortunate lovers depicted in Dante’s Inferno (Circle 2, Canto 5). Rodin called the work Francesca De Rimini, which later came to be known as The Kiss. The sculpture depicts Paolo and Francesca in a passionate embrace on the verge of their first kiss.

Francesca was married to Giovanni Malatesta, son of Malatesta da Verucchio, lord of Rimini. The story goes that Francesca and Paolo, Giovanni’s younger brother, fall in love as they sat reading the adulterous Arthurian love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. They are discovered by Giovanni  who gives out orders to kill them both. Rodin sculpture depicts the moment when the two lovers fall in love.  In the sculpture, as he kisses Francesca, Paolo’s left hand lets go of the book that narrates the story of Lancelot and Guievere.

In Dante’s Inferno,  Francesca describes how she fell in love with Paolo:

 One day,

For our delight we read of Lancelot,

How him love thrall ‘d. Alone we were, and no

Suspicion near us. Oft-times by that reading

Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue

Fled from our alter’d cheek. But at one point

Alone we fell. When of that smile we read.

The wished smile, so rapturously kiss’d

By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er

From me shall separate, at once my lips

All trembling kiss’d. The book and writer both

Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day

We read no more.

Thus, the book becomes the culprit of the lovers’ fate. And Dr. Kristoffer Nyrop, in the preface to the his book The Kiss and Its History, cautions us, the readers, about the perils of reading a book about kisses. Lest the fate of Francesca and Paola befalls us as well.

But in reality, the probability of such an unfortunate outcome like Francesca and Paolo’s will be very very minimal. The reason: There isn’t any thing provocative or remotely erotic about Nyrop’s The Kiss and Its History.

On a hindsight, I think the warning in the beginning was an essential foresight by Dr.Nyrop. While I was reading the book, my Kindle accidentally fell on my face, on my mouth to be precise . The hard silicon corner landed crushed my upper lip. I have a nice cut that pricks whenever I eat. I imagine wistfully, would a not-so-nice kiss do that?

The Kiss and its History is an odd 200-page thesis written by Dr. Kristoffer Nyrop, who was a professor of romance philology at University of Copenhagen.The book is a clinical analysis of the kiss in popular culture prior to the 19th century. The original text in Danish was translated to English by William Frederick Harvey in 1901. Nyrop’s  points of references are the works of poets, thinkers, and storytellers from around the world right from the 14th century to somewhere around the 19th century, eras of intensely delicate sensibilities. All the interpretations of the kiss is from the male perspective, so the book borders on misogyny. However, Nyrop does seem to be keen about including a woman’s perspective to kissing. But he laments the lack of feminine opinion on the kiss as

…so exceedingly few women have treated of kisses in poetry…

Rodin and Nyrop are at the extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to representing women. In his work The Kiss, Rodin depicts Francesca in all her feminine glory. It is said that Rodin’s approach to sculpting women was a homage to women and their bodies, not just submitting to men but as full partners in ardor. On the other hand, most of Nyrop’s poets and storytellers treat women as these coy but shrewd species who

…are aware of the witchery that dwells on their lips, and the power that lies in their kiss.

The humble kiss has had an interesting history like human civilization itself, at least according to spoken and written narratives. Despite its flaws of irrelevance to present day and time, the book is a delight to read.

The book classifies the kiss into a number of categories: love kisses, affectionate kisses, kiss of peace, kiss of friendship. As opposed to a general romantic perception of the kiss, history has seen the kiss as a gesture of obeisance, respect, blessing, and familial affection. Apart from the slanted male perspective on romantic kisses, Nyrop provides interesting information about how different cultures have expressed affection towards their fellow human beings.

As a true philologist, he dwells on the different usages of the word “kiss” in expressions and phrases of different languages: bacia il fiasco (french, he kisses the flask, for someone who likes drinking), den pfennig küssen (german, they kiss the farthing, for a mean person), penny-kisser (english). In 1850, the English came out with fashionable hats for women called Kiss-me-quick. The relatively conservative Danish had Kiss-me-if-can hats. Then apparently there were Stop-kissing-me hats for women in the Salvation army.

Did you know kisses were categorized in three different groups by the Romans? Kisses were listed under poetic names as oscula, basia and suavia: the friendly kisses, kisses of love and passionate kisses.And did you know the Germans have 30 different expressions for the kiss? One of them is nachküssen, which means “making up for kisses that have been omitted, or supplementing kisses”. Trust the Germans to come up with a thorough and methodical system of representation for a mere (okay, not so mere) gesture of affection.

Such interesting facts make the book a purely entertaining. If you are wacky enough, you can put these “kissing” facts in your wooing arsenal. Imagine sitting in a nice pub and explaining to your object of attention or affection how the Romans evolved kisses from oscula to suavia. You can throw in a few live personal demonstrations or two, strictly for clarity purposes of course. And when it comes to our own perfect kiss, Nyrop doesn’t say much but leaves us with this poetic extract by Paul Flemming:

Wherefore, methinks, let ev’ry man

Kiss as he knows best, will, should, can;

But I and my beloved know this:—

How we ought properly to kiss.

( An aside: I found this book while browsing through the ebooks collection at Project Gutenberg. I am currently on a lookout for an affordable physical copy. Any assistance in my quest is very very welcome and will be repaid with lots of oscula. ) 


Image source of The Kiss, Auguste Rodin, 1898: The Public’s Library and Digital Archive


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