Judging a Book by its Cover?
The Possible Hidden Meaning of a Portrait of Machiavelli
B. Scott Crawford”You can’t judge a book by its cover.” A quote we have all heard, and a quote upon which we have all, almost assuredly, taken time to reflect. Yet for almost the entirety of Western Civilization, going back to the Ancient Greeks, the Western mind has thought otherwise. In Western science, philosophy, and art, how one looked was thought to reflect one’s character. Even as late as the mid twentieth century the FBI published profiles of what the “typical” criminal looked like, even offering composite images of criminals in prisons to illustrate clearly how someone with criminal leanings looked. Even today we debate racial profiling, and shows such as Lie to Me reflect a related “science” in which our simplest facial expressions and body movements, “micro expressions,” reveal our true intent.
YES – if you are at a party, so the argument goes, and that person to whom you are talking is smiling, but the smile does not extend to his or her eyes, meaning that the eyes are not squinted slightly and that wrinkles are not forming to the side of the eyes, that person is just being polite and is not sincerely interested in anything you are saying! Oh – and are you talking to someone in which you are interested? Good news – his or her pupils have dilated as you speak! That person is interested in you – or so the argument goes!
Possibly the best reflection of the belief that looks and character are related is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The entire General Prologue is riddled with “physiognomy,” the “science” of studying people’s physical features to understand their true characters. For example, in the General Prologue, Chaucer notes that the Miller, one of the more comical characters, was:
”a stout churl, be it known,
Hardy and big of brawn and big of bone;
Which was well proved, for when he went on lam
At wrestling, never failed he of the ram.
He was a chunky fellow, broad of build;
He’d heave a door from hinges if he willed,
Or break it through, by running, with his head.
His beard, as any sow or fox, was red,
And broad it was as if it were a spade.
Upon the coping of his nose he had
A wart, and thereon stood a tuft of hairs,
Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ears;
His nostrils they were black and very wide.
A sword and buckler bore he by his side.
His mouth was like a furnace door for size.
He was a jester and could poetize,
But mostly all of sin and ribaldries.
He could steal corn and full thrice charge his fees;
And yet he had a thumb of gold, begad.
A white coat and blue hood he wore, this lad.
A bagpipe he could blow well, be it known,
And with that same he brought us out of town.”
From this description we know that the Miller is not one of the more admirable figures on this holy pilgrimage. That he is built large, is “big bone,” and is able to break down doors with his head indicates, according to beliefs during the period, that he is somewhat of an oaf or a fool. His beard being red like a sow or a fox suggests he is dirty and sneaky or crafty. The wart with hairs resembling hairs on a sow’s ears also indicates a flaw in his character as he again is compared to a pig. Being compared to a pig at this time in history could also suggest slowness of mind. And of course his having a big mouth, the size of a furnace door, and that the instrument he plays is a bagpipe indicates he is full of hot air, is loud, and talks a large amount; he is loud and obnoxious. The “thumb of gold” reinforces his stealthy, crafty, fox-like nature as he cheated people out of money as he weighed their grain (he pushed his thumb down on the scale to make the price go up!). As Chaucer’s General Prologue reminds us, character and physique were intricately linked during his age – and beyond.
It was this topic, physiognomy, that drove our discussion at Gathering in the Galleries in May. The work of art serving as the focus for discussion was Santi di Tito’s ca. 1590 portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli, the late 15th and early 16th century Florentine statesman and author of The Prince, The Art of War, The Discourses, and other writings including comedic plays.
Typically at a Gathering in the Galleries event, I lead the participants through a series of questions based on an interpretive model I designed that helps individuals begin to find meaning in a work of art. We began by discussing the participants’ emotional reactions, the composition of the work, and the symbolism found within the work. Overwhelmingly, the participants commented about the facial features of Machiavelli – the eyes seemed “shifty,” and the smile was almost as if he were suggesting that he “knows something we don’t know.”
As for composition, it was pointed out that the background is somewhat Titianesque; a gray background lacking details, thus drawing more attention to the subject of the portrait. Also noted was how the head seemed smaller than the body, which distracted many of the participants. In regard to symbolism, we discussed how Machiavelli’s clothing places him at the time he would have been involved in Florentine politics; however, participants were reminded that the portrait was painted several decades after his death in 1527, possibly as late as ca. 1590, so the artist chose to depict Machiavelli during this stage in his career, before he wrote the works that gave him immortality. Also noteworthy is how Machiavelli places an almost clinched fist on top of the closed book resting on the table, almost indicating that learning for him has ended either through his having mastered the knowledge he seeks or symbolically suggesting that he is deceased – the book of his life is now closed.
It was at this point in the discussion that three things happened. First, two actresses and I jumped into a scene from one of Machiavelli’s comedies, The Mandrake, in order to give the participants a taste of his comedic style and to illustrate Machiavellian behavior. The scene was videotaped and is available on YouTube (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G07nEy8szyw).
Second, we explored two works of art, both created when Machiavelli was still alive, that may have influenced Santi di Tito when he painted the portrait of Machiavelli decades after his death. One is a wood sculpture of Machiavelli while the other is a painting by Rosso Fiorentino, ca. 1525. These works, particularly the painting, have some interesting characteristics shared with di Tito’s work. However, there are differences, particularly how in the painting by Fiorentino Machiavelli is engaging the book rather than resting his hand on a closed book. Also, Machiavelli’s facial features in the Fiorentino painting are softer, and of course the Titianesque background is absent as a more detailed background emerges.
Third, and most importantly, it was at this time that we began to explore the portrait from a physiognomic perspective. After participants examined several examples of Hieronymus Bosch’s, Leonardo da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s use of physiognomy in their works, participants explored some of the drawings of Gianbattista della Porta. These drawings appeared in his work De Humana Physiognomonia, published in 1586. Basically, the entire work is a physiognomic study of man. It depicts one representation of a man next to an animal after another, with each human taking on the distinct characteristics of a corresponding animal (see http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/porta_home.html). Under each depiction are the characteristics of the animal represented, which in turn reflect the personality traits of the related human figure. In short, if someone looks like one of these animals, it was believed, then that person had the character traits of that animal.
And now we turn to the climactic event of the evening – the Aha! moment that I want to occur at each Gathering in the Galleries. The participants were given several drawings by Giambattista and asked to compare the drawings with Santi di Tito’s portrait of Machiavelli (Giambattista and di Tito were contemporaries) – and the verdict was overwhelming: Santi di Tito’s Machiavelli, which broke with the facial features of the painting that most likely guided him as he completed this posthumous representation of Machiavelli, has striking similarities with the depictions of the monkey and cat Giambattista created for his 1586 book! And what did Giambattista write underneath the monkey? “Very much wicked.” The cat? “Stealthy, lies in wait, crafty.” Thus, if Santi di Tito did indeed use physiognomy based on Giambattista’s drawings, he is telling us through this portrait that Machiavelli is wicked and/or stealthy and crafty!
Many questions still remain in regard to Santi di Tito’s portrait of Machiavelli. When exactly did Santi di Tito paint this painting? Who commissioned this painting? Was Machiavelli’s reputation as a teacher of evil embraced by Santi di Tito and/or the patron who commissioned this work? If so, or even if not, what was the purpose of this portrait?
This is why I love art – the more you develop a relationship with a work, the more your curiosity is piqued and the more you want to know!