Embodying the Face: The Intersubjectivity of Portraits and Self-portraits

Topoi 41 (4):731-740 (2022)
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The topic of the human face is addressed from a biocultural perspective, focusing on the empirical investigation of how the face is represented, perceived, and evaluated in artistic portraits and self-portraits from the XVth to the XVIIth century. To do so, the crucial role played by the human face in social cognition is introduced, starting from development, showing that neonatal facial imitation and face-to-face dyadic interactions provide the grounding elements for the construction of intersubjective bonds. The neuroscience of face perception is concisely presented and discussed, together with the psychophysics of face perception and gaze exploration, introducing the notions of the left visual field advantage and the left gaze bias. The results of experiments on the perception and the emotional and aesthetic rating of artistic portraits and self-portraits are reported, showing that despite participants’ inability to tell self-portraits and portraits apart, greater emotional, communicative-social, and aesthetic ratings were attributed to self-portraits. It is concluded that neuroscience and experimental aesthetics can contribute to better understand the human face, hence to better understand ourselves.


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