Be mine. That’s the plea this month, accompanied by Valentine animals, chubby cherubs, cute cartoons and pink emojis. “Be mine” is plain enough, but how did that bi-globed, pointy-bottomed symbol come to represent love? In “The Amorous Heart” by Marilyn Yalom, you’ll see how a human organ became a “whimsical” icon.

Two thousand years ago, love was a painful thing.

Greek and Roman citizens “agonized” over it, says Yalom, and blamed the pain largely on the gods. They spoke of love and wrote of it, but they didn’t have a symbol for it. Meanwhile, the poet Catullus mentioned a certain seed that might prevent conception, and it just happened to be shaped like our modern-day heart.

“It is unlikely” that his words had much to do with the symbol we put on Valentine’s Day cards. Still, that bi-globed, pointy-bottomed shape showed up often throughout antiquity, on pottery and manuscripts, while the heart itself continued to be the supposed seat of romance, both courtly and surprisingly violent.

It wasn’t until the “high Middle Ages” that the heart shape was finally tied, once and for all, to love, especially for the French and Germans, and for religions that venerated the hearts of Jesus and Mary. It was then that the heart became “especially popular as a love motif in jewelry” and in other items, such as songbooks, games, manuscripts, and everyday items used by lovers and friends. Renaissance artists and writers added Cupid to the palette and while he was a popular figure, the heart “never completely disappeared.”

By the mid-1600s, the jig was up. Physicians knew that the heart was just a plain old organ that circulated blood and had nothing to do with love. Facts were facts and 18th-century artists started “ignoring the heart” in favor of the newly remembered brain, but that didn’t deter those with romance at heart. The symbol was carried to the New World, where it became folk art, religious insignia, more jewelry, more fodder for poetry and bad songs, and yes, for Valentines.

“The Amorous Heart” is a bit of a quirky book.

It’s for romantics, but not completely because it’s quite steeped in history. It’s for historians, but not completely because it includes a lot about literature. Lovers of the written word may tire of its romance and history. Heavy sigh.

With all that, it might seem as though this book is a hate rather than a heart, but that’s not at all true. What Yalom brings to this narrative is sprightliness and a good sense of curiosity, as well as a way of suddenly surprising readers. Here, you’ll read about the heart’s travel through history, but you’ll also learn that Shakespeare used the word “heart” almost as often as he used the word “love.”

How can you not love that?

Still, I think historians and those who are exceptionally curious about esoteric things will get the most out of “The Amorous Heart.” And if that’s you then, of course, this book should be yours.


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