Medieval and Early Modern Physiognomy

  • Marke Ahonen
Part of the Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind book series (SHPM, volume 12)


Polemon’s treatise and Pseudo-Aristotle’s Physiognomy were both translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Some parts of the works of Polemon and Pseudo-Aristotle were known in the Latin West through the Anonymus Latinus. The Pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomy was translated into Latin in 1260s. Physiognomy was also dealt with in the Secretum secretorum, an eighth-century eclectic Arabic work, which was partially translated into Latin in the early twelfth century, and completely c. 1230. Book 8 of the Latin version includes physiognomy. Arabic works on physiognomy include Book II of Rhazes’s (Abū Bakr al-Rāzī) tenth-century medical work Liber ad Almansorem, translated into Latin in the 1180s. Michael Scot’s Liber physiognomiae, written at the court of the German king, Frederick II, c. 1230, was a popular work partially based on ancient and Arabic sources. It influenced the chapters on physiognomy in Albert the Great’s Questions on Aristotle’s On Animals. There were commentaries on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomy by William of Aragon (c. 1300), John Buridan, and others, as well as physiognomical discussions in the commentaries on Aristotle’s treatises on animals. Rhazes’s treatise contributed to combining physiognomy with medical Galenism. Many ancient and medieval physiognomy works were printed in the Renaissance. Some works, such as the commentary on Pseudo-Aristotle by Agostino Nifo, or the introduction to the science of chiromancy and physiognomy by Alessandro Achillini, continued the Italian university tradition of teaching physiognomy as part of natural philosophy. The works of Bartolomeo Della Rocca (or Cocles) were very influential. In his De humana physiognomonia (1586), the Italian Giambattista Della Porta presented traditional physiognomic ideas with woodcuts of animals and humans illustrating physiognomic characteristics. This work inspired Louis XIV’s court painter Charles Le Brun, who prepared a series of pictures representing various emotional face expressions. The most extensive eighteenth-century work on physiognomy was Johann Caspar Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente.


Ninth Century Moral Goodness Emotional Face Expression Popular Work Early Modern Time 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Classical PhilologyUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland

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