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

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The Medieval Foundation of Renaissance physiognomy
Joseph Ziegler (University of Haifa)

13 décembre 2007

L’héritage et son interprétation - session Orient et Occident : l’héritage médiéval présidée par Jean-Claude Schmitt (Paris).

In general narratives of the history of physiognomy in the West the story usually starts in the ancient world, silently leaps over the Middle Ages, resumes in the sixteenth century in order to reach quickly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when physiognomy came gradually to be fused with racial theory.
A series of studies in the last two decades allow us now to raise questions of continuity and change in the passage from medieval to renaissance physiognomy. In my paper I will survey, from a history of science perspective, the contributions of medieval thinkers to learned physiognomy between 1200 and 1500, and then raise some broad questions which hopefully should stimulate debate concerning the evolution of the science of physiognomy beyond 1500.
Among the medieval contributions I shall discuss will be:
1. The emergence of a theoretical foundation which allowed physiognomy to acquire a scientific status.
2. The growing attention devoted to the physiognomy of women.
3. The growing emphasis on experience and the study of particular cases.
4. The marginal place dedicated to ethnic aspects of physiognomy inherited from Antiquity and to zoological physiognomy.
Among the questions related to the post-1500 period, I shall raise will be:
1. The impact of printing and the systematic introduction of illustrations to the physiognomic books as an explanatory tool.
2. The significance of the continuing interest in medieval physiognomy: notably the popularity of Michael Scot as attested by the repeated reprinting of his physiognomy book.
3. The consequences of the abandonment of the framing model for learned physiognomic discourse in the form of a commentary on Aristotle’s physiognomy or on a medieval physiognomic authority (Pietro d’ Abano).
4. The effect of the growing doubts concerning the presumed Aristotelian authorship of Secretum secretorum on the status of physiognomy as a valid science.
I shall particularly refer to Chiromantie ac physionomie anastasis by Bartolomeo Della Rocca Cocles (1504), which in some respects is still part of the older medieval tradition, but can also be regarded as a precursor to a new period in the history of physiognomy.

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Joseph Ziegler Joseph Ziegler (University of Haifa)