Part 3 from Your Nose: A History of the Nose, Rhinoplasty and the Attitudes that Shape our Perception, in Five Parts (Excerpted from Dr. Adamson’s book Fabulous Faces, available on Amazon.com, and edited for our blog).
Part 3: Famous Noses of History: A collection of anecdotes about noses of note
“Bah! The thing is not a nose at all, but a bit of primordial chaos clapped on to my face”– H.G. Wells, author
In the late 1770s, a Swiss theologian named Johann Kaspar Lavater published Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, a pioneering work in the pseudoscience of physiognomy (judging character based on appearance). His work became quite popular.
Faces, and particularly noses, were the key to character, according to Lavater and his adherents. It boiled down to this: Fine features meant goodness, while coarse features were bad. Such nonsense almost cost Charles Darwin his berth on HMS Beagle, the ship of discovery that carried him to the Galapagos Islands, where his studies of the unique animal life led to the theory of evolution.
Captain Robert FitzRoy didn’t want Darwin on board as the ship’s naturalist because of his bulbous nose. “He was an ardent disciple of Lavater and was convinced he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features,” Darwin wrote, “and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.” FitzRoy relented, and Darwin wrote, “I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”
Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach, but he believed the success of that army could be found higher on the body—in the noses of his officers. He equated big noses with big brains. “When I want any good head-work done I choose a man … with a long nose,” he wrote.
Tycho’s Golden Nose
Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who lived in the late sixteenth century, was brilliant but hot-headed and eccentric. He had a castle and a pet moose. (The moose later got drunk on beer, fell down a staircase, and died.)
Brahe and Danish nobleman Manderup Parsbjerg, in their cups at an engagement party, got into an argument. More than two weeks later, the quarrel resumed, this time with rapiers. Parsbjerg proved to be the better swordsman. He neatly sliced off most of Brahe’s nose.
Brahe reappeared weeks later with an artificial nose made from an alloy of gold and silver. He carried a small box of paste that he used to hold his golden nose in place.
Michelangelo’s Flat Nose
He painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel lying on his back and breathing through his mouth. Michelangelo’s nose was a singularly unlovely sight, squashed so flat against his face that, in the words of one historian, “his forehead almost overhung [it].”
The great Renaissance artist fell victim to a sucker punch that didn’t just break his nose but pulverized it. And it happened in church.
Michelangelo, just a boy at the time and learning his craft in Florence, had the habit of rubbing people the wrong way. He was considered the up-and-coming new star—and he knew it. He irritated other artists by making fun of their work. One day, he went too far. He and fellow artist Pietro Torrigiano, three years his senior, were in the Brancacci chapel of the Carmine church to study what was even then a Florentine masterpiece, the Masaccio frescoes. “One day in particular when he was bothering me, I became much more irritated than usual and, clenching my fist, I dealt him such a blow on the nose that I felt the bone and the cartilage crumble under my fist as if they had been made of crisp wafer,” Torrigiano later told a friend. “He’ll go with my mark on him to his dying day,” Torrigiano added.
And he did. Michelangelo went on to flat-nosed greatness in Florence and Rome. Torrigiano fled to “barbarian” Britain, where he fell in with another pugnacious fellow, King Henry VIII.
Up next in our series, A Historical View of Noses and the First Nose Job!