Windows of the soul: caricature and physiognomy

Wednesday 28 February I was at Warwick University as an invited speaker within the research seminar series of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. I publish here an excerpt of my talk, summarising the main point I tried to make and discussing some example of literary caricatures. Here the uncut version. 

With this talk, I aim at clarifying the mutual enhancement of caricature and physiognomy. As Martin Porter puts it, physiognomy is a form of “natural magic”, a language in which all aspects of human appearance are natural “windows of the soul”. Physiognomy is assessed as “magic” and archaeological knowledge for the modern epistemology deprived it of recognised scientific reliability. Still, it has been a long-standing and pervading presence in Western Culture. Over time, it has registered the multiple and diverse attempts to connect what is visible of the human body to what is invisible and concerns the soul and the mind; to establish a relationship between the outside and the inside; to find homologies between superficial lines and deep forces, physical outlines and moral attitudes.

Lithographic drawings illustrative of the relation between the human physiognomy and that of the brute creation / From designs by Charles Le Brun. Wellcome Collection.

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Portraits and caricatures

It has been published the volume Il dialogo creativo. Studi per Lina Bolzoni, edited by Maria Pia Ellero, Matteo Residori, Massimiliano Rossi, and Andrea Torre (Lucca: maria pacifini fazzi editore, 2017).

The book is conceived as an homage offered to Lina Bolzoni in the occasion of her retirement. Lina Bolzoni is an outstanding scholar in Renaissance Studies and established original, unexplored paths of inquiry regarding several aspects of visual and literary culture in the Early Modern period. It was my privilege to be one of her students and to collaborate with her as a post-doc researcher within the ERC project Galassia Ariosto. Continue reading “Portraits and caricatures”

Breaking news! Media and caricature in Bontempelli’s literature

I just published the essay “Edizione straordinaria! Bontempelli e la cognizione della Grande Guerra”, within the volume Dal nemico alla coralità. Immagini ed esperienze dell’altro nelle rappresentazioni della guerra degli ultimi cento anni, edited by Alessandro Baldacci (Firenze: LoGisma, 2017).

The essay analyses two novels by the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli, La vita intensa (1920) and La vita operosa (1921). I look at how these literary texts represent the «intense life» of the post-WWI metropolis, in whose spaces an analogy is established between the violence of war and the violence of peacetime dominated by the semiotic aggressiveness of modernity. Particularly, the psychic pressure of war seems to be extended by the pressure of the media system, which in those years was sky-rocketing and becoming increasingly complex and widespread.

Bontempelli’s two experimental novels are first published serially in two different magazines: «Ardita», a graphically dynamic and modern magazine issued monthly with the newspaper «Il Popolo d’Italia», in the case of La vita intensa.

«Ardita»’s cover designed by the artist Lorenzo Viani

«Industrie Italiane Illustrate», a journal funded by industrial companies, in the case of La vita operosa, which interestingly is a novel that largely satirises the way capitalism affects the human existence at the point that even bodies and minds are shaped by its force.

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Marino: a cosmic self-portrait

Frans Pourbus the Younger, Portrait of Giovanni Battista Marino, 1619, Detroit Institute of Arts. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In his sonnet Sul proprio ritratto (di mano di Bartolomeo Schidoni) – published in 1620 within La Galeria, 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”

Parini: last days of aristocracy

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?

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Michelangelo: a self-caricature

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”

Alcina’s double portrait

In the seventh canto of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1532) Ruggiero arrives at the island of the sorceress Alcina. The sorceress encounters him on the threshold of her wonderful palace. She appears as the image of beauty itself. «Her person», Ariosto writes, «is as shapely and as fine / As painters at their most inspired can show», and her face presents a «perfect symmetry». The long description accurately depicts every detail of Alcina’s face and body. (OF, VII, 11-16):

Di persona era tanto ben formata,
quanto me’ finger san pittori industri;
con bionda chioma lunga ed annodata:
oro non è che più risplenda e lustri.
Spargeasi per la guancia delicata
misto color di rose e di ligustri;
di terso avorio era la fronte lieta,
che lo spazio finia con giusta meta.

Sotto duo negri e sottilissimi archi
son duo negri occhi, anzi duo chiari soli,
pietosi a riguardare, a mover parchi;
intorno cui par ch’Amor scherzi e voli,
e ch’indi tutta la faretra scarchi
e che visibilmente i cori involi:
quindi il naso per mezzo il viso scende,
che non truova l’invidia ove l’emende.

Sotto quel sta, quasi fra due vallette,
la bocca sparsa di natio cinabro;
quivi due filze son di perle elette,
che chiude ed apre un bello e dolce labro:
quindi escon le cortesi parolette
da render molle ogni cor rozzo e scabro;
quivi si forma quel suave riso,
ch’apre a sua posta in terra il paradiso.

Bianca nieve è il bel collo, e ’l petto latte;
il collo è tondo, il petto colmo e largo:
due pome acerbe, e pur d’avorio fatte,
vengono e van come onda al primo margo,
quando piacevole aura il mar combatte.
Non potria l’altre parti veder Argo:
ben si può giudicar che corrisponde
a quel ch’appar di fuor quel che s’asconde

Mostran le braccia sua misura giusta;
e la candida man spesso si vede
lunghetta alquanto e di larghezza angusta,
dove né nodo appar, né vena eccede.
Si vede al fin de la persona augusta
il breve, asciutto e ritondetto piede.
Gli angelici sembianti nati in cielo
non si ponno celar sotto alcun velo.

Avea in ogni sua parte un laccio teso,
o parli o rida o canti o passo muova:
né maraviglia è se Ruggier n’è preso,
poi che tanto benigna se la truova.
Quel che di lei già avea dal mirto inteso,
com’è perfida e ria, poco gli giova;
ch’inganno o tradimento non gli è aviso
che possa star con sì soave riso.

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The Cognition of Priapus. Gadda and caricature

Is out my last essay, The Cognition of Priapus. Caricature procedures in Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Eros e Priapo. Here it is available the English abstract, while here you can find the whole essay in Italian.

I extract from the essay three different caricatural descriptions of Benito Mussolini provided by Gadda in his controversial pamphlet Eros e Priapo, written between 1944 and 1945. In the first, Gadda portraits the image of Mussolini speaking from the sadly well-known balcony:

Di colassù i berci, i grugniti, i sussulti priapeschi, lo strabuzzar d’occhî e le levate di ceffo d’una tracotanza priapesca: dopo la esibizione del dittatorio mento e del ventre, dopo lo sporgimento di quel suo prolassato e incinturato ventrone, dopo il dondolamento, in sui tacchi, e ginocchî, di quel culone suo goffo e inappetibile a chicchessia, ecco ecco ecco eja eja eja il glorioso, il virile manustupro: e la consecutiva maschia polluzione alla facciazza del «pòppolo».

The second caricature ridicules the bourgeois-like image adopted by the former revolutionary Mussolini after the conquest of power:

Pervenne alle ghette color tortora, che portava con la disinvoltura d’un orgango, ai pantaloni a righe, al tight, al tubino già detto, ai guanti bianchi del commendatore e dell’agente di cambio uricemico: dell’odiato ma lividamente invidiato borghese. Con que’ du’ grappoloni di banane delle du’ mani, che gli dependevano a’ fianchi, rattenute da du’ braccini corti corti: le quali non ebbono mai conosciuto lavoro e gli stavano attaccate a’ bracci come le fussono morte e di pezza, e senza aver che fare davanti ’l fotografo: i ditoni dieci d’un sudanese inguantato. Pervenne.

This description reveals an unquestionable affinity with visual caricatures published in satirical newspapers and magazines, particularly in the early Twenties, such as the following by the caricaturist Carlin.

senza-titolo
Carlin (Carlo Bergoglio), La riapertura della camera,  «Pasquino», 48, 1922

Finally, Gadda deforms Mussolini’s figure, and particularly his head and face, adopting a pseudo-medical perspective, mixing up dismissed disciplines and brand new disciplines, such as physiognomy and psychoanalysis, in order to connect physical features of the man and psychological and psychiatric explanations of his behaviour:

Vorrei essere frenòlogo e psichiatra per poter iscrutare la follia tetra d’un gaglioffo ipocalcico dalle gambe a roncola, autoerotòmane, eredoalcoolico ed eredoluetico: e luetico in proprio. Da discrivere e pingere in aula magna que’ due mascelloni del teratocèfalo e rachitoide babbèo, e l’esoftalmo dello spiritato basedòwico, le sue finte furie di scacarcione sifoloso.

To deeply understand the inner misshapen thoughts and wishes of the dictator, his face and body must be «depicted» according to a deformation endowed with a critical meaning.

Quotes are from:

Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eros e Priapo. Versione originale, edited by Paola Italia and Giorgio Pinotti. Milano: Adelphi 2016.

Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eros e Priapo. Da furore a cenere, in Idem, Saggi Giornali Favole e altri scritti, II, edited by Claudio Vela, Gianmarco Gaspari, Giorgio Pinotti, Franco Gavazzeni, Dante Isella, Maria Antonietta Terzoli. Milano: Garzanti 1992.