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Colloque La physiognomonie à la Renaissance / The Arts and Sciences of the Face 1500–1850

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Physiognomic Aspects of Viewing the Human Body in Ancient Art and Literature
Sabine Vogt (Berlin)

13 décembre 2007

L’héritage et son interprétation - session Physiognomonie et philosophie classiques présidée par Fernand Hallyn (Gand)

A professional physiognomist named Zopyrus was practising his art in Athens, when he met Socrates, not knowing who he was. He announced his physiognomic judgement: “Stupid is Socrates and dull, because he has no hollows at the joint of the collarbones, but these parts are blocked and stopped up; besides, he is a womanizer.” When the surrounding audience started to protest, Socrates excused him, saying that Zopyrus was quite right, that this was indeed his inclination by nature, but that by means of his intellect he had rid himself of it.
This ancedote, transmitted by Cicero (De fato 10 and Tusculan disputations 4.80) is a valuable starting point for my paper about “Physiognomic Aspects of Viewing the Human Body in Ancient Art and Literature”, for it contains in nuce everything that seems relevant to me in order to investigate the value of physiognomics for cultural studies in general and the use and misuse the ancient texts on physiognomics have been put to in Classics and in the interpretation of ancient art. I shall explain this thesis by considering five aspects which are, metaphorically spoken, concentric circles of increasing diameter with the Zopyrus anecdote as their center point.
- Definition of physiognomics: semiotics of body and character
- Evidence of physiognomic theory and practice in antiquity
- Procedure and methods of physiognomic interpretation
- The logical presuppositions of physiognomics and their refutation
- How to make sense of physiognomics in cultural studies
The discussion of this fifth aspects allows a more general approach towards our interest in ancient – and not only ancient – physiognomics. Representations of human beings, in art or literature, are more often than not meant to be read as representing the „core“ of their character. The artists gain this effect, partly, by a process which I propose to call „synthetic physiognomics“ – as opposite to „analytic physiognomics“, i.e. the process of deducing character traits from the features of body and face of a (living) person.
This distinction allows us to more precisely consider the common ground on which statements about physiognomic correlations as well as the many artistic representations of the human body and soul (in sculpture, portrait, literature, etc.) are „working“ – differently in different epochs of ancient art. For it enables us to detect formulae of a vocabulary of physiognomic correlations, as well as their shifting in the course of the centuries. Three general, and interrelated, approaches to the human being can thus be discerned in antiquity: the ideal, the individual, and the type.

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Sabine Vogt Sabine Vogt (Berlin)