Sunday, April 3, 2011

About a rare edition of a not rare book

Article by JMB

Before presenting some other rare books, I react on Stephen Worth's recent post and I seize the opportunity to show you a book that is being constantly reprinted since the turn of the 18th / 19th century: Lavater’s essay on physiognomy.
Johann Kaspar Lavater is a Swiss pastor who is particularly famous for this work, of witch the original version is first published in German, both in his country and in Leipzig: Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1875-1878) and that is first published in French in The Netherlands in four successive volumes: 1781; 1783; 1786 and 1803 for the fourth one that is a posthumous volume summarizing his theories. Like every old first publishing, these books are hard to find, particularly in a complete set, since its 4th volume is particularly rare. This edition’s 1st volume has some texts which were unpublished in the German edition.

The French title can be translated in Essay on Physiognomy to Let Know Man and to Love Him. The first volume has 294 pages and 14 additional plates. The second volume has 404 pages and 78 additional plates.

The third volume has 306 pages and 53 additional plates. The fourth volume has 328 pages and 48 additional plates. There are also many other engravings in the text of these volumes.
These books are big: 31 x 37 cm and they weigh over 15 kg. Soon after this edition, a very abridged edition, is published in France as a pocket book with only 33 plates: Le Lavater portatif (The Portable Lavater) ; it has - at least - six editions: from 1806 to 1815. Then a ten volumes edition is published in 1820. Some new editions come in 1845 and in 1850 and so on in France. This Essay was republished many times in Europe and overseas too till nowadays .

His aim is to decipher the human soul from the facial features, according to his first belief that "man was created similar to God’s image". It is to say that the exaggerations of caricature are not his ‘cup of tea’, as he considers them as useless and maybe like a kind of blasphemy! At the same time, the caricature theorist Francis Grose , also considering the angles and proportions of different facial features, sets rules for this art. But even exaggerations have their limits and Grose recommends charging the peculiarities of the caricatured peoples with a judicious moderation, to make them not ugly but simply ridiculous. His purpose is to correct customs by laughing at these people - castigat ridendo mores.

Lavater does not laugh; he is just interested in morals as he deciphers it from mankind's physical aspect. Beauty (what he wants to quantify in his studies) is a sign of virtue and what deviates from his ideal standards is an evidence of vice, maliciousness or stupidity.

Lavater develops his analysis through many illustrated examples of famous people (Socrates, Caesar, Locke, Catherine II, Jesus Christ, etc...) or general characters (like the four temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic).

Among other topics, he deals with the form of skulls, reading the silhouettes of the various faculties of the human spirit, comparing national aspects, etc...

He incorporates ancient theories developed by Aristotle in particular; his book is part a result of De Humana Physiognomonia (1586) by della Porta, the conference of Le Brun on the Passions of the Soul (1668) distributed by engravings of Sébastien Le Clerc (1692), and  Camper's study about lines of animality.

If this work divided the scientific Europe, its success was immense. His influence has continued in the nineteenth century and even beyond, through Gall’s theories of phrenology or Lombroso’s ‘born criminal’.

article by JMB

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