November 04, 2003

Della Porta

Some months ago I wrote an entry here around some striking physiognomical images by the 17th-century artist Charles Le Brun. I find this kind of imagery fascinating, and so was pleased to discover some very similar, albeit cruder, images from a considerably earlier source, the Neapolitan philosopher Giovanni Battista della Porta’s 1586 treatise De Humana Physiognomia.

First of four images from della Porta's 'De Humana Physiognomia'.

Della Porta was a polymath who also wrote and published on such subjects as natural magic, cryptography, horticulture, optics, mnemonics, meteorology, physics, astrology, mathematics, and fortification. He theorised that ‘physical traits shared by animals and men are indices to their characters.’

Comparing the faces of a sheep and a sheeplike man, della Porta observes that the wide strongly defined mouth common to both indicates stupidity and impiety […] He agrees with Aristotle that fleshy faces denote laziness, and illustrates the point with parallel figures of a man and a cow who look like brother and sister - Louise George Clubb.
Second of four images from della Porta's 'De Humana Physiognomia'.

Apparently, della Porta’s treatise languished for some years in the offices of the Papal censor before its publication was approved. Physiognomy was viewed by the ecclesiastical authorities as tantamount to divination, and the supposition that internal qualities depended on external features seemed to them suspiciously close to a denial of free will. Bulls issued by Pope Sixtus V in 1585/6 outlawed fortune-telling by means of chiromancy, physiognomy, or other arts. Della Porta sidestepped this prohibition and avoided a listing on the Index Auctorum et Librorum Prohibitorum by prefixing his work with a declaration that human features indicate only predispositions, and that it was up to ones individual conscience whether or not to follow ones nose, as it were.

Third of four images from della Porta's 'De Humana Physiognomia'.

I had forgotten, or perhaps had barely even noticed in the first place, that Sir Thomas Browne wrote on the subject of physiognomy in his Religio Medici and Christian Morals.

…there is surely a Physiognomy, which those experienced and Master Mendicants observe, whereby they instantly discover a mercifull aspect, and will single out a face, wherein they spy the signatures and markes of mercy: for there are mystically in our faces certaine characters which carry in them the motto of our Soules, wherein he that cannot read A.B.C. may read our natures - Sir Thos. Browne.
Last of four images from della Porta's 'De Humana Physiognomia'.

It is plausible that della Porta’s works could have influenced Browne, granted that the latter’s library contained several volumes of the former’s works. Both della Porta’s and Browne’s writings on the subject were later cited by Johan Caspar Lavater in his physiognomical works. It is a mark of the sea-change that had taken place in the meantime that, whereas della Porta’s physiognomy was seen as pseudo-divination, Lavater’s had become pseudo-science.

Posted by misteraitch at November 4, 2003 03:30 PM | TrackBack

Thanks for the links. I've been a fan of Charles Le Brun's physiognomical studies for a while, but had never come across Della Porta's.

Posted by: A. R. Hall on November 5, 2003 05:57 AM
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