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.

Continue reading Windows of the soul: caricature and physiognomy

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.

Continue reading Breaking news! Media and caricature in Bontempelli’s literature

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?

Continue reading Parini: last days of aristocracy

Of monkeys and men

In 1540 Niccolò Boldrini engraved this surprising caricature after a drawing by Titian. The deformation of a renowned and deeply respected image such as the Laocoon affirms caricature as a deviation from the idealization implied in the Renaissance revival of antiquity and ridicules the obsession with the imitation of classical models of beauty, perfection, and symmetry.

Niccolò Boldrini, Caricature of the Laocoon, after Titian, 1540, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., public domain.