I publish here the talk I’ve given at the Mis-Shapingsconference last September 13 at Queen Mary University.
Do we believe in physiognomy? Do we believe, as the Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso did, that psychological, emotional, moral attitudes of the individuals can be divined by observing the shape and features of the face?
No, of course we don’t. Physiognomy is pseudo-science, dismissed knowledge, superstition. We can’t make assumptions merely relying on appearances. Can we?
What follows is the text of the paper I gave the 20 June 2017 at the International Conference «Fears and Angers. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives», Queen Mary University, 19-20 June 2017.
Probably Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning movie, Amarcord, released in 1973, perfectly defines what was supposed to be the, as William Reddy would say, «emotional regime» of fascism. Enthusiasm, faith, happiness, and veneration for the Chief were the dominant public feelings endorsed by fascism. But, despite the public ceremonies being widely, and often sincerely, officiated by Italian people, fascism largely derived consensus from violence and intimidation.
In his sonnet Sul proprio ritratto (di mano di Bartolomeo Schidoni) – published in 1620 within LaGaleria, a collection of poems conceived as descriptions of, and dialogues with, figurative artworks – Giovan Battista Marino suggests that to depict his portrait a painter should employ the harshness of ice and fire, the terror of the shaded dark of night, the paleness of death, the imperfection of nature, and colours sharpened with whispers and tears. Continue reading Marino: a cosmic self-portrait
In chapter XIII of Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi, Renzo, one of the two betrothed, is involved in a riot in Milan, where people, exasperated by food shortage, start assaulting the bakeries. To placate the rioters and rescue an official who risks being lynched by the crowd, the Chancellor Antonio Ferrer is forced to intervene. Manzoni represents in his portrait all the hypocrisy and duplicity of power embodied by Ferrer. While cutting through the raging crowd with his wagon, Ferrer shows a hyperbolically smiling face, «a countenance that was all humility, smiles, and affection». He also tries to enhance his intervention with gestures, «now putting his hands to his lips to kiss them, then splaying them out and distributing the kisses to right and left». Ferrer pronounces the empty keywords that are supposed to please the crowd: bread, plenty, justice. But at the end, overwhelmed by the pressure of voices, faces, and bodies surrounding his vehicle, he draws in, puffs out his cheeks, gives off a great sigh, and shows a completely different expression of intolerance and impatience. Continue reading Manzoni: grimaces of power
In 1763 the Abbot Giuseppe Parini composes the poem Il Giorno, a satirical text addressing the inactive, lazy, superficial life of the aristocracy. Pretending to be an ode written in praise and for the education of a Young Gentleman, the poem harshly criticises the parasitic emptiness of noblemen and women. As a parody of a eulogy, Il Giorno deforms the classical poetic style, applying the language and rhetoric of epic and mythological tradition to the frivolous daily activities of the gentleman. The text provides a series of caricatures: first, the Young Lord is scared to death by the word “work”, and his hair stands on end (vv. 54-56):
Ma che? Tu inorridisci, e mostri in capo,
qual istrice pungente, irti i capegli
al suon di mie parole?
Caricature misshapes the masks that society applies to the human face. This is why artists use deformation to build self-representations that contradict the social stereotypes of self-fashioning. In one of his poems, Michelangelo Buonarroti portrays his physical and psychological dejection creating a proper self-caricature: bluish coloured eyes, rotten teeth, a face that is fit to terrify, damaged clothes, injured ears and laboured breathing. The self-caricature involves not just the body of the artist, but also his own work of art: his writings become valueless scribblings, and his sculptures are seen as useless rag-dolls. Continue reading Michelangelo: a self-caricature
While reaching an outstanding complexity in the improvement of the human portrait, while exploring the perfection of the human body’s proportions and symmetries, Leonardo da Vinci sketches several experiments in deformation and exaggeration of the human figure.
Scholars refer to Leonardo’s deformations as proto-caricatures, because of their lack of explicit satirical aims. Indeed, Leonardo’s misshapen figures are entangled with his more general inquiry on the human subject, on the inherent shape, both physical and psychological, of the human individual. In this perspective, the caricature can be considered as the exploration of divergent possibilities of representation of humanness, and also a form of criticism against the canonization of the Renaissance portrait, that adopted idealized models screening off the observation of reality.