It has been said that you can “read” a person’s temperament, speculate how easy or difficult their life has been, by looking closely at their face. This is often where signs of stress appear, presenting itself with tired eyes, deep lines between the eyebrows, lips and jaw tight.

What if this were true for a place? What if the essence of a city resided not in its statistics and facts but in the development of its character expressed, perhaps, in the configuration of its hills and valleys, tunnels and caves, changes in public and private space? We could then “read” a city by examining its own particular psycho-geography—not the outer surface layer that it presents to the world but its true depth.

The concept is fanciful but intriguing and pursuing it further inevitably leads to an examination of the 19th-century pseudo-science of phrenology. Phrenology is the study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities. The system came from the theories of the Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall but it was quite popular in Britain and American as well. Lorenzo Fowler was America’s leading phrenologist. It was he who created the famous white ceramic head.

Phrenologists worked by touch; they would “read” a person’s character by running the palms of their hands over the surface of the skull, the theory being that the skull takes its shape from the brain beneath. They considered the brain the organ of the mind and believed it was composed of distinct “faculties” and “sub-faculties” each of which controlled a certain character trait or intellectual attribute such as Cautiousness or Benevolence. The size of each area corresponded to its power.

Getting to know Civita phrenologically requires a slightly different approach. It requires eyes and feet, time spent walking its streets and hills repeatedly. This is the polar opposite of reading about a place in a guidebook, visiting for a few hours on a summer day, or checking it out on Google maps. I’ve been fortunate that through NIAUSI’s fellowship I’ve been allowed the time to do this type of exploration.

When complete, my phrenological “map” of Civita will most certainly be a subjective exercise in “bump-reading” applied to a particular place during a limited time period. But my hope is that it will provide yet one more way to “see” this special place. Already, a cursory look at Fowler’s list of faculties applied to Civita leads to some general conclusions.

Civita’s rich yet destructive past has most certainly left its mark but it remains an industrious city that loves children, families, and animals and delights in showing its wonders to the world. The city reconstructs more than it builds anew, and it is an optimistic place that venerates its past. Interestingly, in phrenology, the faculties one lacks are just as significant as those that are prominent, and in Civita the lack of Blandness and Approbativeness immediately come to mind.

This is, of course, an idiosyncratic exercise. Perhaps the best approach is to visit and draw your own conclusions. Civita will most certainly welcome you.

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