Notes from the John Martin Rare Book Room

Judging By Appearances

Porta, Giovanni Battista Della (1535?-1615).
De humana physiognomonia libri III. , Naples, 1586.

porta-front-small.jpgThe practice of attempting to discern personality traits from physical appearance goes back to antiquity. In fact, it was Aristotle who coined the term, “physiognomy” to support his own writings and inclinations on the subject. Since that time and until quite recently, the notion that character and personality are somehow imprinted in facial features has received considerable attention through a variety of approaches, many of which have been used for such nefarious purposes as racial stereotyping and the outright support of bigotry and racial superiority.

Porta was a Neapolitan philosopher, inventor, botanist, and playwright whose range of interest appeared to have no bounds. His scientific work set him at odds with the church from time to time and many of his books were banned during his lifetime. Porta posited the belief that human qualities can be discovered by noting similarities between human and animal visages. The work is made especially intriguing by the numerous wood-cut illustrations that correlate animal and human facial features.