Artibus et Historiae no. 54 (XXVII)

2006, ISSN 0391-9064

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AVIGDOR W. G. POSÈQ - On Physiognomic Communication in Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was acclaimed as one of the great artists of his time. Everyone who has written about his sculptures has dwelt on their extraordinary expressiveness but the works have seldom been considered in the light of contemporary notions of human expression, particularly the revival of the ancient theory of physiognomic typology. In drawing upon this tradition Bernini referred to its two complementary aspects: the diagnostic significance ascribed to the morphology of human faces and the communication of emotions by means of the dynamic mimicry of the features. The impact of these modes of representation is evident in the admirable vividness of his portraits and also in the conceptual meaning conveyed by the faces in some of his other sculptures.

The discussion of some physiognomic aspects of the works of Bernini allows us to formulate several conclusions. One is the notion that his interest in human expression evolved from the humanistic theory that the "movements of the soul" are reflected in gestures and mimicry, which eventually developed into the theory of the artistic communication of the passions. Bernini was also aware of the recent revival of the ancient theory of the diagnostic aspect of the morphology of human faces, whose similarity to certain animals was thought to indicate a correspondence of behavioural modes. The zoomorphic typology is in many cases reinforced by allusions to the allegorical significance ascribed to certain animals in contemporary handbooks of iconology. Since the artistic representations are related to contemporary theories of expression the appreciation of what the works convey requires some knowledge their cultural background. Comparative physiognomy is no longer as popular as it was in Bernini's time and the same is also true of the texts on animal symbolism but reference to these traditions not only offers the modern viewer an opportunity to look at the works of Bernini as he meant them to be seen but also to understand them in the way they would have been understood by his public.

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