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  • "Ingeniosa scientia nature": Studi sulla fisiognomica medievale
  • H. Darrel Rutkin
Jole Agrimi . "Ingeniosa scientia nature": Studi sulla fisiognomica medievale. Millennio Medievale, no. 36, Studi no. 8. Florence: Sismel, Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2002. xiii + 180 pp. €34.00 (88-8450-074-5).

This handsome memorial volume is composed of four deeply learned studies by Jole Agrimi, originally published between 1993 and 1997, that make important contributions to our understanding of how physiognomy fit within the medieval map of knowledge from the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries, and how it came to be integrated into arts and medicine instruction at the universities, primarily Salerno and Paris. The four essays treat several facets of physiognomy, which, at the crossroads of body and soul, investigates internal qualities through external forms (appearances), primarily on the face. Agrimi provides close readings of manuscripts (publishing rich excerpts), early printed texts, and a broad range of up-to-date scholarly bibliography—elegantly reconstructing the importance of physiognomy for medicine, but also in relation to several other important disciplines, including natural philosophy, astrology, ethics, and politics. These preliminary studies map out a small but significant portion of a vast culture-historical terrain with roots in Greco-Roman antiquity and Islamic learning.

Agrimi's reconstruction of physiognomy's configuration within the medieval Aristotelian-Galenic map of knowledge is of striking interest. She shows clearly that physiognomy was grounded observationally in anatomy and medicine, on one side, and causally in astrology and natural philosophy, on the other. Indeed, she argues persuasively that there was a conscious reorientiation of physiognomy away from its previous configuration with the divinatory arts to a more legitimate configuration with medical observation, primarily anatomy—a configuration still seen in William Harvey's anatomical notes (ca. 1616 and beyond).

Agrimi's genealogy of "scientific" physiognomy goes from the School of Salerno to Michael Scot and the Secretum secretorum, through Albertus Magnus and Pietro d'Abano, to John of Jandun, William de Mirica, and John Buridan (among others). She tells this story in terms of the reception of various fundamental texts, including Rhazes' Liber ad Almansorem, Albertus Magnus's De animalibus, and expecially Bartolomeo da Messina's translation of (pseudo) Aristotle's Physiognomonika. She is also deeply concerned to show the fundamental stages of how this body of knowledge was incorporated into the university curriculum, for which she focuses on evidence from traditional scholastic expository genres, such as the commentary and question.

Because her purview is so vast, Agrimi was not able to treat each text, person, or curricular pattern in the requisite depth. For my interests, this is most pointed in her treatment of Albertus Magnus and Pietro d'Abano, where I would have liked a fuller analysis of physiognomy in relation to astrology, natural philosophy, and medicine. With respect to the curriculum, I would have liked to learn more beyond her focus on Salerno and Paris—in particular, its development in the Italian medical schools, primarily Padua and Bologna. Another important area to which she alludes only briefly is physiognomy's fortuna into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond, at both universities and courts, and how it [End Page 888] came to be removed from and/or appropriated into new styles of medical theory and practice.

But it is likely that every reader would wish that Agrimi had further developed her rich material in one or more of many possible directions. This is by no means a negative reflection on her scholarship; on the contrary, her work has opened up many fruitful areas for further investigation. My biggest regret, however, is that Jole Agrimi herself did not live long enough to complete the job she so brilliantly began. I can only hope that this volume will inspire future researchers with varied disciplinary competences to develop her analyses further. In addition to historians of medicine, this volume will be of interest to those concerned with medieval natural philosophy and astrology, as well as semiotics and the history of the body.

H. Darrel Rutkin
Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology


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