Portraiture and physiognomy exhibition shows Leonardo as the father of Western soul-searching

The relationship between painting and physiognomy explored in Milan, from Da Vinci to Bacon


Milan’s new city administration is determined to transform it into a “world capital of culture”. The inaugural show, curated by Milan’s newly chosen consultant for exhibitions, Flavio Caroli, is at the Palazzo Reale until 28 February 1999.

“Portraiture and physiognomy from Leonardo to the present day” reflects Dr Caroli’s personal obsession for the last thirty years, the relationship between painting and the study of the face and the body as the index of the mind.

According to Dr Caroli, “Certain ideas in Western culture, which have been explored primarily through painting, continue to resurface again and again. Leonardo’s interest in physiognomy and in painting the ‘impulses of the soul’ were taken up by Della Porta and passed on to Le Brun and then Hogarth and Lavater, and so on through the nineteenth century to Géricault and Lombroso. These ideas continue to be relevant today.”

The exhibition celebrates Leonardo’s belief that the inner workings of the soul found physical expression in the human body. Dr Caroli explains, “When Leonardo writes ‘create figures so that the depths of their soul become clear, otherwise your art will not be worthy of praise’, he is grappling with the existence of an inner world and almost single-handedly sparking off an interest that was to be pursued by artists centuries before Freud”.

The exhibition reveals Leonardo’s lasting influence on science as much as art. The artist who spent years dissecting corpses in his quest for anatomical understanding is also seen as the father of Western psychology. “Textbooks on the history of psychology start with Leonardo and his interest in physiognomy”, says Dr Caroli. “He encouraged countless others and generated huge interest in a previously uncharted field.”

When Leonardo’s patron in Milan, Lodovico il Moro, fell from power, the artist fled the city. “In 1500 he met Giorgione in Venice and, later the same year, Giorgione can be said to have created the art of modern portraiture. This must have been the result of meeting Leonardo,” says Dr Caroli. Three years later Achillini writes a treatise on physiognomy which first appears in Bologna and is later republished in Pavia, the city where Leonardo dissected corpses with Marc’Antonio Della Torre.

Over 200 works have been lent from international museums and private collections, including two drawings by Leonardo. Also included are thirteen engravings of Leonardo’s work by the seventeenth-century artist Hollar, on public view for the first time, and, from Christmas, one of the only two known sculptures by Leonardo, the terracotta head of the Boy Christ, on view for the first time in Italy. Works by Lorenzo Lotto, Caravaggio, Giorgione, Titian, through to Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Francis Bacon are also included.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The father of Western soul-searching'