5. 12. 2020

English Version |The art of the Heart

by Sara Andrade


<3. There are even shortcuts on the keyboard to draw this multi-purpose emoji that, basically, is a symbol of love in all its aspects. But a < and a 3 are far from looking like the organ that lodges in our chest. Not even the most stylized emoticon resembles the real one. So, how did we get to this shape? And, after all, is it really the heart that encloses all our emotions?

Actually, the iconic shape has more that a keyborad shortcut, nowadays. Double tap on a social media photo and a heart comes out. Join your right and left thumbs and arched index fingers and a heart is formed - then, just watch them multiply throughout the audience of a concert and drawn in animated GIFs for stories. Press the outline of it on an Instagram livestream and watch them spurt out of the comment box. Spreading internet love has never been simpler because there is an easy way to do it: a heart is worth a thousand words. After all, even if we want to say that we're in love, we have smiles with hearts for eyes. The symbol is so strong that it became a verb: when graphic designer Milton Glaser created the famous “I heart NY” logo in 1977, as a way to increase the morale of a city in crisis, he was far from realizing that that heart would move from graphics to the vocabulary of the world. Is mathematics the universal language? Perhaps right after the heart, we dare say. But as much merit and fame Glaser's New York heart has won, he was not the first. The heart, in this form of two upper semicircles with a pointed base, feeds many theories, such as, for example, being inspired by vine leaves, after wine glasses engraved with the heart shape were discovered, but also the idea of ​​having been modeled after the shape of breasts and buttocks and other parts of human anatomy - usually female. One of the most peculiar theories relates the figure to that of the silphium plant, a species of fennel that once grew on the coast of North Africa, close to the Greek (and later Roman) colony of Cyrene (now Shahat, Libya). In Ancient Greece and Rome, its aromatic and medicinal properties were widely known, even as cough syrup, but its most famous utility was the use of its seeds as a contraceptive method. The shape of this plant, so popular that it was cultivated to exhaustion, meaning extinction - it is said that Emperor Nero took the last dose - gave way to its heart-shaped representation and this association was what first contributed to globalize the symbol. Another similar theory speaks of its resemblance to the ivy leaf, very associated in Ancient Greece with the god Dionysus, divinity for wine, yes, but also for everything that was libidinous and sensual. It's curious, then, that the first association of the heart, more than a loving one, was a sexual one. From (carnal) intimacy to love was a step that History later tried to document in a more or less illustrated way. 

This historical question, however interesting as it may be, is still a set of speculative hypotheses. The genesis of this representation of the heart may, in fact, have its origins in the writings of Galen and the philosopher Aristotle, advocate scholars such as Pierre Vinken and Martin Kemp, who described the heart as having three chambers with a small recess in the middle. Fast forward to the Middle Ages, when artists and scientists tried to draw representations of the organ from ancient medical texts (it was a sin to profane the body of a deceased, so knowledge was taken from these testimonies and not from the organ itself): in the 14th century, for example, the Italian physicist Guido de Vigevano drew a series of anatomical sketches that resembled this heart described by Aristotle, that man who gave the organ total supremacy in all human processes. In fact, in the fourth century BC, the philosopher said that it was the first organ to form, according to what he had observed in the evolution of the chick embryo, assigning it a central role in intelligence, reason and sensation. He was not the only one to correlate feelings and heart, in this era of Ancient Greece - his peer philosophers agreed, in a more or less consensual way, that the heart was linked to our strongest emotions, among them love: such as the poet Sapho, in the 7th century BC, who described the agony of her “crazy heart” pining for love, writing that “love shook my heart, like the wind in the mountains makes the oaks restless”; or like Plato, who argued in favor of the strong role of the chest in passion and negative emotions such as fear, anger, rage and pain. In Ancient Rome, the perception was similar: Venus, the goddess of love, was guilty of setting hearts on fire with the help of her son Cupid, whose arrows that pointed to the human heart were accurate and powerful, strengthening this idea of ​​the link between the organ, as a symbol, and love. “I think that the heart, in fact, is very linked to a romantic or idyllic or loving conception that has absolutely no relation to the function of the organ itself”, explains Dr. Rui Anjos, Pediatric Cardiologist, Director of the Pediatric Cardiology in Hospital de Santa Cruz, CHLO. We wanted to find out more about this 'machine' in our anatomy, but we couldn't resist talk about it as a symbol of love. He left his comfort zone to try to answer Vogue: “I believe it's because, in the past, long before we had the notion of the functioning of all the organs and systems of the body, people connected it to the fact of becoming more emotional in response to certain stimuli - they felt their hearts beat faster, more strongly or less strongly - and this made the heart a little bit a central organ for loving or emotional relationships, in general. When they felt their heart beating, they thought that it was in the center of the body, in the heart area, that their passions, their strongest emotions, were in fact concentrated. But nowadays, we know that it is the central nervous system. Our nervous system controls the heart, and it controls many other organs, […] our heart is not directly related to emotions, but it does suffer from emotions, works differently. And that is why the heart has been more closely linked to emotions for many centuries, because it is the organ that most quickly, or most notably, manifests our feelings in a different way.” And he adds that “the heart is a good metaphor for love, because we all feel it. I mean, I think most of the strong emotions translate into changes in the cardiovascular system that we immediately notice. As in other organs, but we actually feel a lot in the cardiovascular system, blood pressure, heartbeat, and when we talk about palpitations in love, or my heart flutters for that person, because in fact our heart rate increases, etc., that is to say, we translate more quickly and more directly the functioning of the heart when we have strong emotions, as in love.”

This parallelism was crucial for the representations of the heart as a symbol of love to have proliferated since the Middle Ages, as a metaphor for the loves of the Courts, for example, having gained special ressonance in the Arts since the Renaissance, used not only in Sacred Art - as the Sacred Heart of Christ - but also being assumed as the suit of hearts in the deck of cards. The first known engraving with the symbol appears around 1250, in an illustration from the French manuscript Roman De La Poire, in which a kneeling man offers his heart to a maiden. The organ itself is more like a pine cone, mango or misshapen cone than a heart, but the shape between the fingers while the lover grasps the object forms the lines we now know of the stylized heart. Opinions differ about whether what he holds in his hand is really his heart or just a pear (the manuscript translated into English is called Novel Of The Pear), nevertheless a curious reference to this chronology of the figure, which appears here for first time. This aspect of pine cones to illustrate an inverted heart still occurred in paintings such as that of Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua (1305), which shows an allegory of Charity offering its heart to Christ, or even, inspired by Giotto, works on the bronze door of the Baptistry, in Florence, by Andrea Pisano (c. 1337); at the Palazzo Publico in Siena, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c. 1340), and still Andrea da Firenze, in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (c. 1365). The angular side of the heart gradually started to point downwards, about the same time that it started to have that recess at the top, approaching the heart shape we now know - Documenti De Amori, by Francesco Barberino, from the early 14th century also approaches the modern figure; The Heart Offering, by Jehan de Grise, an illustration from The Romance Of Alexander (1338-1344), shows a woman offering her heart to her beloved, in that conical shape, but from the tip down and with the upper cut. This “cut” at the top of the heart begins to become more pronounced over the decades, reaching the 15th century and continuing through the 16th century in countless pictures and illustrations, already very close to the popular lines of today - see the miniature of Petit Livre D'Amour, where the author Pierre Sala deposits his heart in a field of daisies (his lover was called Marguerite) or the miniature of two women trying to catch flying hearts with a net, with a series of winged hearts already in the figure we know today, both examples from the beginning of the 16th century. Did that shape already exist? Yes. But in these times, the figure as a symbol for love gained particular representation, growing in multiple artistic demonstrations, from painting to literature and music - serenades by troubadours were a declaration of excellence in medieval love, for example. When Valentine's Day appeared in the 17th century, the illustration was already the obvious choice as a symbol for the date. Even when medicine gained extensive knowledge about the organ and its functioning, even when scientists proved that this piece of the human body had little or nothing to do with this simple representation, the figure did not fade. Making it viral, even in centuries away from social networks, was easy, and the symbol has grown throughout the decades to become the emoji that we know and love, or rather, that we <3.

But it was not only in the emoticon that the heart became a metaphor for love. Its functioning has been the subject of numerous analogies in expressions more or less reliable to its role in human physiology - usually, less, much less reliable. The “role of the heart and the cardiovascular system is basically to distribute blood to all organs and systems of the body”, explains the cardiologist. Since we are talking about the heart, let's get to know it in all its dimensions, instead of the bidimensional bits and bytes to which we have become accustomed. “The blood carries the nutrients, and, above all, what we need most which is oxygen. Therefore, the blood that is distributed to all organs carries products that are essential, namely all kinds of nutrients, either that we have already absorbed through the digestive tract or that we form in our body, and at the same time, something that is essential, which is to promote cellular respiration, which is to deliver oxygen to the tissues and bring carbon dioxide from the tissues. This cellular respiration allows cells to obtain energy from products such as glucose molecules, which is the most basic molecule for providing energy; from glucose, we produce energy at the cell level and release carbon dioxide. Thus, it's the breathing mechanism. For this to happen, the heart has to deliver these nutrients and products to all organs and tissues, so basically, it is the organ that promotes the transport of everything throughout our body ”. With Dr. Rui Anjos, now moving around completely in his comfort zone, we wanted to find out if expressions such as “my heart flutters for you”, “I even had a syncope when I saw you” or the eternal “broken heart” have echo in the original organ. Palpitations, for example: “Usually, we don't feel our hearts working. Usually. The heart goes on working around the clock starting a few weeks after conception and until we die. The heart rate is very high in the fetal period, then it gradually decreases, but it continues to be very high in the newborn and in the first year of life, and then throughout our life it gradually decreases until it reaches the lowest values at the end of life. When a baby is born, the normal heart rate is between 120 and 180 beats per minute and when we reach 80, 90 years old, our heart rate usually goes down to around 50/60 beats per minute. This is because the heart adapts and also because of the aging and maturity mechanisms of the heart. Palpitations are extra beats that we feel as a perception of the heartbeat. That is a palpitation. And it usually has to do with a faster heart rate, either because the person ran or because the person has a fever or because the person is unnerved and more anxious. So the heart beats faster and we have this perception and we say ‘my heart is pounding’. But truly, the technical term 'palpitation' has to do with an arrhythmia, with extrasystoles, usually." The cardiologist explains the process in detail: “It is a deviation from the normal heart rate. It is connected to our most basic nervous system, which is the relationship nervous system, or the autonomic nervous system, which makes us sweat when we are anxious, which makes the heart beat faster also when we are anxious and which makes us react quickly, or in a certain way in the face of emotions; for example, in the face of danger, there are people who have their heart beating very fast and the blood pressure goes up, whilst there are others who, in the face of the same danger, go pale, with a lower heart rate and the blood pressure is also lower, and eventually pass out. So this is the central nervous system, which also manages the heart, which allows us to maintain a basic heart rate throughout the day.”

In other words, our heart can actually beat in the presence of the loved one, but it is a response of the nervous system, which can happen in other situations and not exclusively in this one - although it is much more romantic to associate the palpitations with episodes of this kind. It's not a coincidence that we say that our heart “skipped a beat” when we see someone we like. Or even talking about syncope as that moment when our heart stops “because we fall in love”: “Syncope is a sudden momentary loss of consciousness”, explains the cardiologist. “And there are several causes for syncope. There are three main groups of causes for syncope: the most common is a reflex syncope. And that, again, is the nervous system, which is our central nervous system, which keeps the heart functioning with a certain stimulus, which maintains a certain tone, a certain contraction of the vessels, to maintain not only good heart rate, as well as good blood pressure. When we experience a syncope, what happens most of the time? There is a maladjusted response of the body to an emotion, in which the heart, instead of increasing its rate and blood pressure, suffers from a maladjusted self-regulatory mechanism… The heart receives stimuli to work more slowly, and the vessels receive stimuli to dilate, to lose their tone. Therefore, from this maladjusted response, there is a final link, which is the decrease in blood pressure. So, the brain does not get blood with the necessary pressure, therefore, temporarily, we lose consciousness because there is not enough blood in the brain. This is the most common cause of syncope, but there are other causes, namely serious diseases that can manifest as syncope, but this is the most frequent cause, especially in people who are in excellent health but who have maladjusted responses. [In the case of love] The person may even pass out from a passionate problem, from having an exaggerated dose of stress, from not eating, from being dehydrated, from being apathetic, so there may actually be a very important psychological component there, and then you may pass out, or you may not react properly due to a maladjusted response from our nervous system. And the heart manifests itself because then it beats very slowly before a person passes out, before a person has a syncope, and then when the person is recovering, it beats very quickly. ” Analogies are not entirely unreasonable. In a clearly exacerbated way and with a slightly misguided guilt - our nervous system is responsible, the heart manifests itself as collateral -, using its functioning to verbalize what goes on in the soul in matters of heart is not completely mistaken - at least as a metaphor, of course.

The use of the figure as a representation of passion and all the ailments and joys it brings us will continue to make sense as long as the organ is strongly manifested each time love happens. Putting love in its essence in the center of the chest may not be cleared off by Medicine and Science, but the truth is that something as unique as love could only be in an organ that resembles it in this orbit of singularity: “Death happens when the brain stops working. But when the heart stops, the other organs stop, though we have many situations in which the person is dead and the heart continues to work. It is called brain death. And brain death is what determines a person's life or death. Now, no one can live with a still heart, unless they have equipment or a machine to replace the heart. And we do have artificial hearts that we can place, but with a deadline, I mean, we can’t put an artificial heart that lasts more than a few months, and some months is already with a lot of technology and a lot of effort and it’s something that, progressively, the entire structure of the equipment loses its function, loses its capacity ”, explains the cardiologist. “Which is different from a heart transplant. In a heart transplant, we put someone else's heart on the patient and the patient has to accept that heart as his own, because he can reject that heart. But at that time, it has a 'new' heart, it is no longer 100% new, but it is a heart that overcomes the problems inherent to the heart that was sick. ” By this time in the text, you must have realized that this thing about transplantation and an artificial substitute does not happen when our hearts are metaphorically broken. None of these procedures fix a “broken heart”. For these, it is the usual time and therapy. And the hope that for every broken heart emoji there is a new <3. That the symbol, the figure, the drawing, the emoticon, will always remain unscathed, even though yours, mine, ours, will not go through this life without some risks and changes in mood, forgive me, love.

*Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's Love issue, published in December 2020.
Full credits and story on the print issue.