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Comparison of man and lion from Giambattista della Porta's 'De humana physiognomonia', 1586.

Comparison of man and lion from Giambattista della Porta's 'De humana physiognomonia', 1586.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

What does a person’s face tell you? Many cultural traditions developed ways to ‘read’ faces. However, they disagree on the meaning of exterior features. The face is an important site of medical diagnosis in TCM, as different parts of the face are considered to correspond to different organs of the body. The colour and constitution of these facial features is assumed to indicate health or disease of the corresponding organ. Chinese doctors interpret the face using a diagnostic ’map‘.

In Europe the face is often considered an outward expression of a person’s character. An ancient Greek text called Physiognomika (‘the art of judging a person’s character by his or her face’) proposed a system for interpreting facial features. This tradition continued in Europe with scholars such as Italian philosopher Gianbattista Della Porta (1535-1615), who argued a person’s inner character was revealed by his or her external features. Porta likened this to plants revealing their medical properties according to the ‘doctrine of signatures’. Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater tried to base physiognomy on a more secure scientific basis in the late 1700s. However, his works were controversial. Some contemporaries ridiculed Lavater’s attempts to compare the features and characteristics of humans and animals. German philosopher and physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-99) published a parody of Lavater’s work. In it he suggested a method for detecting a person’s character from the shape of their pigtails.


Related links


G Della Porta, De humana physiognomia (1586)

E H Gombrich, ‘On Physiognomic Perception’, Daedalus, 89/1 (1960), pp 228-241