G: Physiognomy

In Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before (1994), Father Caspar believes that he can make use of a rather outlandish contraption called the Specula Melitensis (Maltese Mirror) to find the location of the 180th meridian. This strange apparatus, supposedly originally constructed by the order of Johannes Paulus Lascaris, Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, is described as “an Ars Magna in flesh and blood, . . . a kind of Megahorologium, an Animated Book capable of revealing all the mysteries of the Universe.” The machine was previously described by the Jesuit Salvatore Imbroll in a 1638 text called Specula Melitensis Encyclica, and is also connected to Athanasius Kircher’s visit to Malta in the same period. Composed of three parts, the apparatus studied the winds, different calendars, a method for comparing the time in Malta with that in other parts of the world, and, perhaps most importantly, the relations between astronomy, astrology, physiognomy, and medicine.

The elaborate Baroque imagination provided the perfect breeding ground for the development of a “science” like physiognomy, whose best-known champion in modern times was the eighteenth-century Swiss scholar Johann Kaspar Lavater, who believed that physical features and facial expressions allowed scholars to infer specific conclusions about health and sickness, folly and wisdom, virtue and vice, and so on. Naturally, in recent times, physiognomy has been consigned to the humbler position of a pseudoscience, more so given the increased mobility of people and cross-cultural mixtures around the world. But at a popular level, simplistic ideas about one’s appearance and eth- nicity have not entirely vanished. How do the Maltese describe their own physiognomy when they look at themselves in their specula? Until the 1970s, Maltese facial characteristics were de- scribed in geography textbooks as “a Mediterranean mix owing to intermarriages.” In the Maltese imaginary, a Maltese physiognomic “norm”—whatever it actually means—tends to be distinguished from more fair-skinned persons (often referred to simply as ingliż or English) and dark-skinned individuals, who might be categorized as għarbi (Arab).

Darren Tanti, L’Annalisa, 2011. Oil on canvas, 80 × 57 cm. Courtesy the artist.
This portrait of a young Maltese woman is a metaphorical marriage between traditional and contemporary representations of Maltese society. The fashionista staring defiantly out of the canvas smokes a cigarette yet is relocated, anachronistically, to different historical eras by the chiaroscuro effect and the Byzantine halo crowning her head.

Page 334 from a Maltese geography textbook: Anton Azzopardi, A New Geography of the Maltese Islands (1995).

Maltese sailor with moustache, ca. 1900–14. Malta Maritime Museum, Birgu. Members of the Royal Navy were expected to shave their moustaches, but a special concession was granted to Maltese sailors, who preferred not to shave them in order to retain their “macho” image.
Courtesy Heritage Malta.