Item of the Week: Reading Faces, Hands and Feet

Published: May 20, 2011

Last summer, the Clark had an exhibition devoted to the arts of the occult, which featured several of our collection’s rare books devoted to the subject of palmistry and physiognomy.  Not displayed with these items was a manuscript recently rediscovered by our manuscripts librarian, which includes some fantastic pen and ink illustrations. The drawing below, which shows how to read a person’s forehead, is on a double sized page that folds out of the book.

Tractatus phisionomia was purchased by the library in 1959 and was likely written around 1650.  It’s unclear whether the Latin text is an original unpublished text, or if it is a transcription of a previously written work (though we believe it is likely copied from another source as opposed to an original work).  Physiognomy, palmistry and phrenology are all treated by the text and the accompanying illustrations are meant to help you understand what you, the amateur physiognomist, ought to be looking for.

The irregularity of some of the fingers above leads us to believe that the writer might have been simply tracing his (or her) own hand on a sheet of paper.  Like the lady in the first illustration, whose eyes are looking in two different directions, this only adds to the overall interest and charm of this volume, in our humble opinion.  We have not tried out the methods outlined in Tractatus phisionomia for ourselves, but you are more than welcome to consult the text and test it out in our reading room!

Tractatus phisionomia, MS.1959.008, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.

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