PhysiognomyPhysiognomy ( from physio, nature and gnosis, to judge) is a pseudoscience, based upon the belief that the study and judgement of a person's outer appearance, primarily the face, reflects the contents of their personality. The principal promoter of physiognomy in modern times was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801 )who, for a short while was a friend of Goethe. Lavater's Essays upon physiognomy were first published in German in 1772 and gained great popularity. His essays upon physiognomy were translated into French and English and were highly influential. The two principal sources from which Lavater found 'confirmation' of his ideas were the writings of the Italian Giovanni Della Porta (1535-1615), and the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) whose Religio Medici Lavater read and praised. Browne discusses in this work the possibility of the discernment of inner qualities from the outer appearance of the face thus-
- there is surely a Physiognomy, which those experienced and Master Mendicants observe....For there are mysyically in our faces certain Characters which carry in them the motto of our Souls, , wherein he that cannot read A.B.C. may read our natures. (R.M. part 2:2)
- Since the Brow speaks often true, since Eyes and Noses have Tongues, and the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations; let observation so far instruct thee in Physiognomical lines....we often observe that Men do most act those Creatures, whose constitution, parts, and complexion do most predominate in their mixtures. This is a corner-stone in Physiognomy...there are therefore Provincial Faces, National Lips and Noses, which testify not only the Natures of those Countries, but of those which have them elsewhere. (C.M. Part 2 section 9)
Browne was in turn influenced by the writings of the Italian Giovanni Della Porta. Della Porta's work Of Celestial Physiognomy argued that it was not the stars but the temperament which influences both man's facial appearance and character. In his pseudo-Aristoelian work De humana physiognomia (1586) Porta used woodcuts of animals to illustrate human characteristics. Porta's works are well-represented in Sir Thomas Browne's library for, like Porta before him, Browne subscribed to the belief in the doctrine of signatures, the belief that the physical structures of nature, for example, a plant's roots, stem and flower, were indicative keys or signatures to their medical potential.
The popularity of physiognomy grew throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. It influenced the descriptive abilities of many European novelists, notably Balzac whilst the, 'Norwich connection' to physiognomy may be discerned in the writings of Amelia Opie and George Borrow, besides a host of other nineteenth century English authors, notably descriptive passages of characters in the novels of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.