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.

Caricature, both verbal and visual, builds on the insights of physiognomy; it resonates with the innate physiognomic intelligence lodged in the human mind. By taking seriously and emphasising the psychological reliability of face reading, caricature triggers the activation of a satirical knowledge; it claims the paradoxical seriousness of an archaeological wisdom according to which the authentic nature of a person can be divined by analysing his/her body and face, suitably deformed to stress the salient traits.

The idea of caricature being related to a form of regressive knowledge explains its sometimes violent harshness, and the often unpleasant incorrectness of satire, such as in the previously analysed case of Gadda’s anti-fascist verbal caricatures. Gadda detects in Mussolini’s physiognomy his bestial and violent nature; he describes the body of the Italian fascist society as deformed by an erotic excitement targeting the body of the Chief. Particularly, women’s behaviour, triggered by desire, according to Gadda contributed to the defeat of reason, legitimated the violence entailed in the triumph of Eros, and enabled the reproduction of fascism. Caricaturising the bodies of men and women misshapen by sexual desire, Gadda aims at unveiling the psychological and emotional causes of fascism.

Gadda’s enraged misogyny makes evident that he is reactivating what I called a regressive knowledge. Gadda’s premises are “scientific”; he designs a Freudian, psychoanalytical analysis, based on supposedly rational observations. Still, to give evidence to his account Gadda needs to draw upon the physiognomic-emotional insights which can vividly represent his thesis; to the instinctual, irrational interpretation entailed in the violence of caricature. His satire registers the emotional heating of an entire society, and his response is as much emotional as the enticement of the public sphere it intends to fight back.

A similar emotional translation of the political situation is represented in a wide-ranging series of literary texts written or set during fascism, in which social and political issues are entangled with individual sexual drives. In these texts, both the individual body and the social body are deformed, transfigured by an erotic desire which is the embodiment of the irrational political support guaranteed by people to the fascist regime.

In Goffredo Parise’s Il prete bello, published in 1954 but set at the end of the Thirties, with fascism at its peak, the devoted fascist and good-looking priest don Gaetano perturbs the life of an entire town and triggers a compelling attraction in both men and women. In this case, the social body is already deformed by poverty, hunger, small-mindedness: from the very beginning of the novel, each description is a caricature. Though, the erotic flow produced by the arrival of don Gaetano stresses and emphasises this “original” deformation. Desire and eagerness of pleasing the priest deform grotesquely the behaviour of the inhabitants, whose perversion is impressed in their bodies and faces, disfigured by an ugliness which seems to be the consequence of don Gaetano’s beauty, that is to say, of fascist ideas.

Tono Zanacanaro. Gibbo: the socialisation of the ongoing exploits, 1944. Archivio Storico Tono Zancanaro

Eros produces caricatures, it makes visible the emotional deformation of the body, such as in this portrait in motion of Miss Immacolata, that renders her hyperbolic reactions to the news that her beloved don Gaetano doesn’t have an affair with another woman:

Ella s’andava trasformando: dapprima arrossì, poi divenne pallida a un tratto, in seguito un’altra volta rossa e poi rosea. I minuscoli occhi dietro l’occhialino si stavano accendendo di fiammelle e sorrideva ed era trasognata e poi diventò reale e terrena sorridendo a grandi sussulti, annuendo col capo ad ogni mia parola, martoriando i cuscini con le unghie. Finché si alzò dal letto e si diresse alla finestra a passi spiritati, e, come se il cuore all’improvviso stesse cedendo al flusso impetuoso del sangue, gemette: «Basta, Sergio! basta! oh Dio! oh no! oh sì! basta, basta, per carità! per amore della Madonna». E alla fine, generatori di gioia, i singhiozzi le uscirono dal petto mentre andava da una parte all’altra della stanza raccogliendo oggetti che poi gettava per terra un’altra volta, stracciando fogli di carta e lo scialle di seta in tanti pezzetti.

The same link between private sexual lives and public excitement is represented by Vitaliano Brancati in his Il bell’Antonio, published in 1949. The beautiful Antonio Magnano, a Sicilian man, triggers the desire of all the women and seems to embody the prototype of the fascist (and Sicilian) lover.

Vitaliano Brancati, “Il bell’Antonio”, Bompiani, 1949 (cover image: Pablo Picasso, The Cock).

Antonio, though, hides a secret: he is sexually impotent. In the context of fascism, Antonio’s apparently shameful impotence becomes an unconscious, unwilling rejection of the obsessive masculinity officially performed by the regime. Because of Antonio’s misfortune, he and his family can progressively detach themselves from the fascist community. But not without troubles: don Alfio, Antonio’s father, is intimately tortured by Antonio’s condition, struggling between social pressures and the defense of his son’s honour. Alfio’s masculinity is led to a stress point by Antonio’s impotence. And his body, constantly overexcited by anger, becomes the battlefield in which the tension between conformism and rebellion is made comically, hyperbolically visible. As in this dialogue with the brother-in-law Ermenegildo, who is similarly transfigured by rage and concern:


Il signor Alfio accentuò l’espressione amara delle labbra spingendole tanto in basso e a sinistra che anche il naso dovette un poco seguirle.
Ermenegildo continuò ad accarezzarsi la faccia, ma con tanta forza che la carne della guancia destra gli girava al di là del mento fin sulla guancia sinistra e un occhio gli scendeva sopra lo zigomo.
Il signor Alfio si mise ad agitare una mano verso il cognato e a mugolare con violenza: la parola che non gli veniva alla bocca, e di cui aveva impellente bisogno, era il nome di Ermenegildo.
“Come diavolo ti chiami?” gridò.

Eventually, emotions simultaneously deform physiognomies and overwhelm language, suffocate words.

More subtle and implicit, but not less significant, is the connection between sexualisation of society and deformation in the work of Tommaso Landolfi. Landolfi frequently uses images of animals as a stress-test for humanness. The ever impending monstrosity that circulates in Landolfi’s works is telling about the deep emotional distress that jeopardises both social and sexual life of his characters.

Daniele Guerrieri, Gurù

In La pietra lunare, Giovancarlo’s fear for sex hints at a dysfunctional relational life. Giovancarlo dislikes the bodies of every woman in his village. The deformed, unpleasant bodies of the town dwellers represent the vulgarity of the social body. When Giovancarlo is looking at his fellow humans from his window, his gaze produces a collective caricature:

Ecco ad esempio una fanciulla […] afflitta da un seno grosso e allungato, a borsa, del tutto staccato dal busto e chiazzato di rosole d’una ripugnante larghezza; eppoi pance rigonfie, cosce muscolose e quell’esoso sfaccettamento delle natiche (talvolta persino dislocate), quella iattante e stomachevole sodezza delle anche, che basta a far odiare una donna per tutto il resto dei propri giorni.

As Giovancarlo meets Gurù, the woman-goat, the capra mannara, the encounter seems to disclose for him the dimension of true sexuality and a different femininity, represented by her radically diverse body. Interestingly, Landolfi overturns the hierarchies of deformation: what is grotesque in this tale is the human body deformed by conformism, while the body of the woman-goat embodies the option of escaping from the absurdity and paralysis of reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *