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

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Physiognomy c. 1470- c.1780 : the limits of an audio-visual scientia in textual form
Martin Porter (Lyon)

13 décembre 2007

L’héritage et son interprétation - session Renaissance de la physiognomonie : perspectives présidée par Jackie Pigeaud (Nantes et IUF).

‘Books on physiognomony’ provide many points of interest about the history of ‘physiognomy’ during the Renaissance period. The limitations of a book-history approach to such an innately audio-visual subject as ‘physiognomy’ indicates areas beyond the texts that call for the examination of ‘physiognomy in action’ – a task not without its own methodological problems and limitations.
Inventing an archive of ‘books on physiognomony’ allows for the establishment of a working ‘map’ of the marginal but ubiquitous scale of the textual phenomenon with which one is dealing, as well as the geographical and temporal dynamics of their production, price and distribution during this period. A sociological approach to these texts provides a picture of the wide-ranging social spectrum of the consumption of ‘books on physiognomy’ across the period, as well as the variety of taxonomies in which ‘physiognomony’ became lodged as it migrated through the libraries of the Renaissance and early modern period. In Windows of the Soul I pointed out its frequent and consistent classification under ‘theology. Many of these texts offer historians of ideas a rich variety of the hitherto unexplored philosophical frameworks into which the theory of ‘physiognomony’ was absorbed prior to, during and beyond the Renaissance period, all of which contributed to the ongoing development of the theory of ‘physiognomony’. In Windows of the Soul I focused on those few texts that bear witness to the influence of Renaissance hermeticism. In hermetic eyes, ‘physiognomony’ came to be seen as part of ancient theology, an aspect of man’s original, divine language. A comparative philological examination of the physiognomical aphorisms which line all ‘books on physiognomy’ in order to establish a clear sense of continuity and discontinuity in the aphorisms raises many insurmountable problems. Where the origins of any particular physiognomical aphorism cannot be traced back to either a previous text, or a logical deduction, or its form explained simply in terms of the hazardous transmission through the world of scribal and printed publication, any extra-textual origin of any aphorism is often irretrievable. Yet the nature of the aphorisms, the methodologies developed by historians of reading, as well as an examination of the graffiti found on the texts themselves, allow for the suggestion and empirical testing of numerous hypotheses about the ways in which people engaged with these texts. In Windows of the Soul I suggested that ‘physiognomony’ was often engaged with in a non-scholarly way, as part of the quest for self-knowledge. In hermetic eyes, it appears to have been developed into a form of physiognomonical prayer aimed at self-transformation - in Robert Fludd’s case, a ‘technique of the microcosm’ combined with the art of memory.
But what of the ‘physiognomy’ beyond the ‘books on physiognomony’, be it the ‘physiognomy’ of the illiterati or the practices of the ‘physiognomists’ themselves? ‘Books on physiognomony’ themselves raise the question of the existence of an oral physiognomical tradition, as well as the potentially illiterate physiognomical practices of the gypsies. The ‘physiognomony’ in these books is put forward as a theorisation of the ‘physiognomy’ that happens between people, people and nature and people and representations of nature. Are there sufficient sources to support the development of a methodology that would allow one to capture ‘physiognomy in action’ in the early modern period, be it during medical consultations, criminal trials, official diplomatic encounters, courting rituals, the making and viewing of art and theatre, even the writing and teaching of history? If so, how independent of that canonic textual ‘physiognomony’ was it? If the Arabic notion of ‘firasa’, or the French term ‘physnomy’ indicates the universal faculty through which the phenomenon of ‘physiognomy’ was both expressed and perceived by textually literate and illiterate alike in early modern face-to-face society, to what extent can that more innate and visceral ‘physiognomy’ and ‘physnomy’ be shown to have been agents in historical causation?

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