Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the ages

by Lorenzo Lorusso
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Physiognomy vs Caricature

A number of thinkers have considered how the face reflects the workings of the mind, and ultimately the soul, and human nature. For many centuries the study of Physiognomy was tied up with astrology. Notions of the relationship between individual appearance and inner character, was present in early Greek culture. By the fourth century, the philosopher Aristotle made frequent reference to Physiognomy.  Aristotle’s considered that a man’s mental nature, as well as his passing emotional state, was revealed by his anatomic form and the play of the muscles. The study of Physiognomy became an integral part of the physiologically based medical practice and those who study physiognomics were “physicians” who tried to interpreted human character and moral tendencies. Analogies were drawn between human expressions (pride, humility, cowardice, bravery) and animals’ facial features. In the ancient Greek world view, the peacock was proud, the hare timorous, the lion brave. Aristotle’s pupil, the moral philosopher Theophrasti (circa 288-286 B.C.) investigated psychological features of different human types. The physician Claudius Galenus or Galen of Pergamon (129-200 A.D.) confirmed in “Quod animi more” (the trouble of soul) based on the ancient temperament and humoral medical theories.

Fig. 1
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The author is illustrated surrounded by various animal like human faces and animal faces

De Humana Physiognomonia

Gian Battista Della Porta (1535–1615). De Humana Physiognomonia (1586). Courtesy of Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli. Settore Cultura e Musei. Comune di Milano, Milano, Italy.

These theories later influenced the following centuries scientists such as the astrologer Scottish Michael Scot (1175-1235) whose book “Liber Physiognomiae” was popular in Medieval Age. Scot attempted to equate the ideal of human beauty with the ethical behavior of the Christian faith. During medieval times, the interest was in the prophetic aspect of the matter rather than in the scientific explanation. In this case physiognomists recognized the face of emotional expression and moral character. An important contribution of this theory of Physiognomy is that a person’s character can be related to the shape of his or her face.

The Neopolitan G. B. Della  Porta (1535-1615) returned to the ancient Greek ideas on the relation between physiognomy and character in his book ‘ De Humana Physiognomonia’ (1586) [Fig. 1]. His work is considered a classic of physiognomy as a benchmark between the sixteenth century culture of magic and the move to more rationalistic thought in the seventeenth century. Della Porta took a zoomorphic approach to correlate human to animals faces in his study  of the temperament.

Fig. 2
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Bovine face in front and profile views together with corresponding bovine animal face
Fig. 3
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Goat faces in front and profile views with corresponding goat like human faces below

Von der Physiognomik

Lavater K J. Von der Physiognomik. Leipzig, Weidmanns Erben, 1772. Courtesy Archivio Storico Civico, Biblioteca Trivulziana, Milano, copyright@Comune di Milano, Italia.

This was later developed by the Frenchman Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) in his books: ‘Traité des passions’ (1698) and ‘Caractères des passions’ (1790). Based on René Descartes’ (1596-1650) theory of the passions (1649), Le Brun's ‘ Conférence sur l'expression générale et particulière ’ (1668) sought to present a rational and coherent theory of expression. In the Netherlands, Pieter Camper (1722-1789) went on to devise a measure of the facial angle to classify human beings and explored how the human passions can be express by gestures of the body and face.

The German Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) extended this in ‘Von der Physiognomik’ (1772). The appeal of essentialism for Lavater lay in its capacity to validate a ‘science’ of Man based on a theory of natural kinds. But the problem of essentialism for physiognomy was that it imagined its ‘science’ as the result of an intuitive understanding of the intrinsic properties and purposes of things [Fig 2-3].

Fig. 4
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A sketch of charles darwin seated in and arm chair with legs crossed, arms crossed, leaning forward with a smile on his face.

Charles Darwin

Charles R. Darwin, published by Vanity Fair on 30th September 1871. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA.

In the nineteenth century England, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) continued this tradition in ‘The expression of the emotions in man and animals ’ (1872). However, Darwin viewed this work as a cornerstone of his evolutionary theory — the means of demonstrating once and for all that Man was not a separate and divinely created species but no different from other animals. The result was a study of expression that tried to identify specific mental and emotional states as well as their corresponding expressions (by concentrating on their motor activity), and then map their common descent through groups of related organisms. If this could be done, then human feelings like love, anger, fear, and grief could be treated as physical habits and shown to have clearly recognizable parallels, perhaps even origins, in the animal world [Fig. 4].

The Italian Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) created the study of ‘Criminal Anthropology’, correlating the physical abnormalities, especially of the cranium, with psychological features based on moral behaviour.

These nineteenth century approaches physiognomy is based on the psychological study of the expression of the Man. By contrast, the caricature provides a moral vision of social life by employing humorist images with exaggerated individual characteristics to ridicule arrogance and power.


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