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

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Physiognomony of the fool in Renaissance England
Anu Korhonen (univ. Helsinki)

15 décembre 2007

Art et physiognomonie - session Figures de la folie présidée par Pascal Griener (Neuchâtel).

Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises on physiognomy make constant references to stupidity, dullness or folly having their outward manifestations on a person’s face. The quintessential Renaissance figure to personify these traits was the fool. In this paper, I want to question whether the fool’s assumed stupidity ties in with physiognomical knowledge – indeed, how should we read the fool’s face?
If one core belief in physiognomy was that beauty equaled good, and deformity or lack of symmetry signalled vice, then it is no surprise that the fool’s overall grotesqueness could also be read through physiognomical practice. Fools were ugly. They were described by singling out features strikingly similar to what physiognomy depicted as signs of stupidity. The fool’s eyes were often excessively round or protruding, and big noses, large nostrils, round, open mouths and thick lips were mentioned. Even the size and the placing of the head – which in the fool could be emphasized by his shaven hair or his professional headgear – could be used to read his simplicity. But perhaps the most notable characteristic of the fool’s face was its endless restlessness: the confused mind was never quiet, and neither was the face where its motions could be detected. As always in physiognomy, the overall impression proved the case: it was lack of beauty that signified the fool’s stupidity. A further interesting thing about the fool’s physiognomy was that it was not only an external sign of a confused mind, but a tool of the trade – his features and looks were a standard aspect of his humour, whether used by himself or interpreted by his spectators.
Looking at the fool can suggest to us the importance of physiognomy in a loose sense, as a cultural way of deciphering faces and outward appearances in the early modern period. Its prescriptions also help us to understand how the fool was usually read – not as the shrewd comedian and court fool who is our primary association today, but as an entertaining, endearing idiot whose face showed visually what his words revealed in language: his unreason.

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Anu Korhonen Anu Korhonen (univ. Helsinki)