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Porta, Giambattista della. De humana physiognomonia libri IIII. (Vici Aequensis [Vico Equense] : Apud Iosephum Cacchium, 1586).

Giambattista della Porta, sometimes know as Giovanni Battista della Porta, was born in Vico Equense, Italy, just outside Naples, on November 1, 1535, the son of a government official. Educated at home, he became well learned on his own and traveled extensively, often cultivating an air of mystery. In Naples, he founded the Academia Secretorum Naturae, otherwise known as the Accademia dei Oziosi, which was later suppressed by the Inquisition. In Naples in 1610, he helped to reestablish the Acaddemia dei Lincei, an organization founded for the pursuit of mathematics and natural sciences. He wrote a number of books on topics ranging from cryptography and occultism to alchemy, distillation, and phytotherapy. He died in Naples on February 4, 1615.

Physiognomy, or the notion that a person's temperament and character can be deduced from the shape of his or her face or body, was first proposed by Classical Greek philosophers and physicians, and Aristotle wrote about the concept extensively. By the Renaissance, the science of physiognomy had been combined with astrology to become rather complex. Giambattista della Porta's work, De humana physiognomonia, first published in 1586, summarized the previous literature on physiognomy and attempted to make a strong case for it, along with numerous illustrations. He states, for instance, that a man with sheep-like features would have personality characteristics similar to that of a sheep, in his view a stupid and impious animal.

How seriously trained physicians of the time took Porta's arguments is debatable, but physiognomy has appeared again and again in the medical literature. In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) founded phrenology, or the science of studying character and intelligence based on the shape of a person's head. In the late 19th century, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso wrote that criminal behavior could be predicted in people with certain physical characteristics, including atavistic or ape-like features.

Such images in physiognomy literature are certainly on the fringe of anatomical illustration, but Porta's text goes into great detail about the shape of the brow, the length of the nose, and the breadth of the chin. It also plays a role in the history of comparative anatomy, an enormous field in and of itself.

Further Reading:

Jenkinson, J. "Face facts: a history of physiognomy from ancient Mesopotamia to the end of the 19th century," Journal of Biocommunications, 1997; 24(3): 2-7.

Morton's Medical Bibliography (Garrison and Morton). Ed. By Jeremy Norman. 5th ed. (Aldershot, Hants., England : Scolar Press ; Brookfield, Vt., USA : Gower Pub. Co., 1991). No. 150.