Learning how to Read: Giovanni Battista Della Porta, Physiognomy, and Printed Portrait Books

Bronwen Wilson

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


At end of the sixteenth century, the human face became visible in ways never seen before. Printed portraits, portrait-books, and physiognomy tracts made images widely accessible in which the face and shoulders of the sitter were the focus, reflecting those parts of the viewer's own body that cannot be seen without a mirror. Renaissance humanists revitalized ancient theories concerning facial features and personality, and portrait-books and physiognomy treatises were clearly a response to these beliefs. In turn, as this paper argues, the format and visual conventions deployed by these publications developed the cognitive skills of viewers to be able to discriminate between faces. In so doing, print also altered the ways in which identities accrued to individuals. The legibility of the human face was a preoccupation of Giovanni Bonifacio who promoted gesture as a universal language in his extraordinary L'Arte de'Cenni. As evidence that "all the nations of the world" can agree, he cites the uses of gestures in paintings, asserting their transparency with confidence for Asians and Africans alike. "The concepts of our souls can be expressed in four ways", he explains, with "signs/gestures, speech, writing, and symbols" but only the former can translate dialects and foreign languages. Bonifacio fragments the face and body into a linguistic system, in which the eye, for example, is considered in fifty-eight sections of the book. Giovanni Battista della Porta, the famous advocate of the science of physiognomy, postulated a "Doctrine of Signatures," in which the study of plants, chiromancy (palm reading), physiognomy, and body parts were propagated as signs of character. Size, shape, and lines visible on the exterior, through their resemblance to other phenomena, were deemed to reveal the truth of the interior. Readers were instructed to survey the faces of individuals as if maps, to compare the faces of humans with animals and plants. His project was inspired by the growing epistemological superiority of optics, visual experience, and the conviction that phenomena could be not only descriptive but also explicative. Following the usual array of Arabic, Aristotelian, and other antique sources, Della Porta divided the face and body into parts to explain their meanings, but these syntactical units are then reassembled and the meaning of the whole interpreted using his 'syllogistic' method, a method that claims to distill the essence of the individual from a list of character traits. More than the content of these treatises-with their blend of ancient proverbs and modern maxims-it is the organization of these texts and their didactic strategies, their illustrations, tables and indices, that are revealing. Della Porta's illustrations bring forward a new cognitive role for the image as he aimed to demonstrate what the differences between faces elucidated about individuals. The repeated juxtaposition of human faces with animal heads prompts the reader to discriminate between faces. Thus if Della Porta's theories were bound to the Renaissance world of resemblances, where he is situated by Foucault, the mode and technology of representation initiates those processes of discrimination in the viewer that Foucault assigned to the Classical age. Broken down into its constituent parts and then reassembled, the face is transformed into discourse.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 18 Sep 2003
EventVisual Knowledges - University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 17 Sep 200320 Sep 2003


ConferenceVisual Knowledges
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom

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