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Physiognomy has a long history as a method of understanding the innate qualities of human beings. As a science, physiognomy sought to link physical appearance, especially of the face, with in-born character traits, including emotional capacity and intelligence. Revived in the eighteenth century by Johann Kaspar Lavater, who sought to raise its status within the scientific community, physiognomy suffered from the biases of its practitioners, who tended to attribute positive qualities only to features associated with Europeans. Although accepted by some, physiognomy struggled to establish itself as a legitimate science, subject to more severe criticism than either anthropology or ethnology. 

De humana physiognomonia

Giambattista della Porta (circa 1535-1615) 

De humana physiognomonia 

Aequensis, Italy: Joseph Cacchi, 1586 

Giambattista della Porta’s contributions to experimental science during the Renaissance lent credence to his foundational work on physiognomy. In the engraved frontispiece on view here, human type faces are matched opposite the animalistic characteristics they supposedly embody. 

Rare Book Collection 

Rare Book Collection Folio BF840 .P7 1586 

Essays on Physiognomy

Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) 

Essays on Physiognomy 

London: John Murray, H. Hunter,and T. Holloway, 1789-1798 

Lavater was heavily influenced by Giambattista della Porta and revived interest in physiognomy as a scientific discipline during the eighteenth century. The attractive, high-quality illustrations in his published works lent authority to his claims that an individual’s moral character could be read in physical features. Lavater’s bias towards Western European features led to racial stereotyping, seen here in his assertion that stereotypically Jewish features were a sign of “neither generosity, nor tenderness, nor elevation of mind.”  

Rare Book Collection

Rare Book Collection Folio BF843 .L3 1789 v.1

The Twelve Qualities of Mind

James W. Redfield 

The Twelve Qualities of Mind 

New York: J.S. Redfield, 1850 

Physiognomy could be used as a justification for treating non-white individuals differently, in society and in law. In this pamphlet on physiogonomy from the mid-nineteenth century, African American features are described as indicating natural “subservience,” echoing a common justification for slavery.  

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History BF 859 R315 1850