A small chat about (big) noses with Caro Verbeek

Just last year, NOSE member Caro Verbeek published a book titled ‘Een kleine cultuurgeschiedenis van de (grote) neus’ (A small cultural history of the (big) nose), on why people are depicted with large noses on renaissance paintings, shifting beauty standards, and much more.

Ilja Croijmans had the chance to interview Caro on her book. An interview on history, noses, and smells. The interview took place in Dutch, but we added English subtitles to the YouTube video (unfortunately, due to an error with YouTube, only the first 7 minutes are synced correctly), and an English transcript of the subtitles for convenience!

If you, after seeing or reading this interview, are interested in getting your hands on this unique book, you can order it (in Dutch) from the publishers website.

Transcript of Interview between Caro Verbeek and Ilja Croijmans about the book ‘A small cultural history of the (big) nose’

Ilja: Welcome Caro, thank you for allowing me to interview you about your book

Caro: likewise!

I: We know eachother from the NOSE network, for which we do this interview

And you wrote a book!

C: Yes!

On a certain day, after my dissertation was done and accepted, I thought:

And now I will write something just for myself. Something popular-scientific.

For years I have wanted to write something not just about smell, but also about the instrument with which we smell. What I call the external nose.

So I wrote a book about the cultural history of the, in brackets big, nose.

I: Nice!

You told us briefly already, but why did you decide to write about noses?

C: There are actually two reasons: a more scientific reason, and a personal reason…

The scientific reason is that I am an art historian.

During my study art history, I noticed that people in portraits always have very big noses

Probably bigger than what they in reality had, something we know from comparison with death masks

One of my teachers said to me then that a big nose was a sign of good repute

And I thought: hey! That is interesting! That is completely different from how we regard noses nowadays.

A complete discrepancy with the contemporary beauty ideal: a nose as small as possible, especially for women, but also sometimes for men.

That was the scientific reason.

I: Is that.. uh, can I ask you something about that?

Does that hold up? Because, I mean, it is sort of a thesis, that it is indicative of good status…

But if I read your book, it seems to shift through the ages, it differs.

Some people are depicted with a small nose, and others with a big nose.

C: Yes, but that people are depicted with a smaller nose only really starts in the 19th century, and then only really for women.

Men are always depicted with a bigger nose.

And not just a bigger nose, not every big nose was indicative of good repute, it had to be really pointy, for example.

It had to have a certain angle. The nose tip should not be too wide. You should not be able to look into the nostrils.

The nostrils should be a little bit obscured.

That has stayed the same since ancient times until the 19th century, really.

A hook nose could be a very good sign as well, until of course in the 20th century.

Then it was associated with the so-called ‘Jew nose’, and linked to greed or other bad characteristics of an entire people.

But the hook nose, in ancient times, that was a sign of civility, for courage.

They didn’t call it a hook nose back then, but for example an aquilline nose, after the eagle – aquila in Italian.

so yes, it shifts. it shifts indeed.

It also depends on the class someone is in.

For a farm girl to be considered pretty in ancient times, she had to have a small nose.

But if you were a woman from a patrician family, you had to have a big nose, then that was a sign of beauty. So it really depends on the context.

I: Just like smell in a way
C: -yes, absolutely

In ancient times, some smells were associated with status

some very expensive types of resin, like myrrh

and in the 20th century, 19th century, 18th century, you see that odorlessness is associated with status

and just after that, you see that noses become smaller as well. I think there is a relationship there: a decline in our appreciation of the sense of smell coincides with a decline in our appreciation of the big nose.

I: Interesting.
C: -Yes, it is a thesis of mine.

And I think, with our increasing interest, and appreciation for olfaction, it increased a lot in recent years in all fields of science, in humanities, in exact sciences.

that the nose can become bigger again as well. the nose does not have to be non-existent.

Like, Freud said that the sense of smell is not important at all. That we don’t need it anymore.

That is not civilized to smell. Then the nose can just become smaller and disappear.

Now we know, partially thanks to your research and that of your colleagues, that we can even smell emotions, and that it is really important for partner choice.

And for the appreciation of cultural expressions, like wine.

Or in my field, of art. Smell plays an important role in that too.

And I think that the nose may become bigger again for that reason.

I: I will come back to your personal reason to write this book, but I wanted to unpack this a little bit more.

Just before we started the recording, you mentioned that many animals don’t really have a protruding nose.

And people do. So that seems to contradict what Freud said.

C: I find that really strange.

I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I have looked at explanations of those biologists for why our noses protrude like that.

Because it really sticks out. Even when it is relatively flat! It extends the most, of all parts of the face.

For almost everyone.

That would be because it provides a nice shelter, just like how our eyebrows protect the eyes the shape of the nose protects our nostrils and mouth for all sorts of nuisances, like water or sweat.

The nostrils are the gatekeepers for food that we put in our mouths, we smell it first.

if it is unhealthy, or unsafe, we won’t put it in our mouth, is the idea.

But how is it possible, that for animals, even for dogs that have a large muzzle, the nose is in the same plane as the mouth. For us, the nose is orthogonal to the face, but not for animals.
Why? I find that really strange.

I: Well maybe that is because the nose is really important for us?

C: Because the nose is very important for us compared to animals?

Right. I do have an explanation: I think it has to do with the fact that we walk upright.

Animals have their noses close to the ground. So their nostrils, when they smell, turn down automatically.

We, because we walk upright, our nostrils need to point downwards.

That is my explanation, but I’ve never encountered it elsewhere, I can’t proof it, haha

But there has to be a reason.

I: And what was your personal reason for writing the book?

C: My personal reason is that I have a big nose myself. It is a family characteristic that goes back 4 generations.

On my mother’s side of the family, it is called the ‘Buurmannen’-nose, that is her last name.

Everyone had a nose like that.

They had this saying, that everyone who had a small nose, not a ‘Buurmannen’-nose, is just a whipster [‘snotneus’].

No I don’t say that right.

If they had remarks about our Buurmannennoses, they are just whipsters.

And my dad had a really large nose just like me.

The moment I turned eleven, my nose started to grow bigger than the noses of my female peers. I was often called out on my nose.

And still, as an adult, by random strangers. So yes, I found that an intriguing topic.
I: Yes, I read that in the book.

C: I started to take notice of noses more and more, and it is also kind of a therapy, to see that the nose I was bullied with, used to be something really positive in the past.

So it has everything to do with perspective. And I found that a very comforting thought.

I: Yes. And in your book you call that your ‘nose complex’?

C: Yes, I call that my nose complex.

And it seems that many people have had a nose complex in the past. Like Darwin.

Darwin suffered from it the most.

He had a relatively short nose, for a scientist. He should have had a longer, sharper nose. Slightly bigger nostrils, they were relatively small.

Because of his nose, he almost wasn’t allowed on the Beagle.

I found that a fascinating story, because people thought that the nose was an expression of all sorts of qualities.

That was called the physiognomy, an ancient field, pseudoscientific we would call it today.

Lavater, a Swiss preacher, had popularized it in the 18th century.

And in the 19th century, Darwin still suffered from that. His captain, on the Beagle, was a follower of Lavater, and he thought:

“With such a nose? On this voyage? Well, I give you the benefit of the doubt, you can come along.”

Darwin was really shocked when he found out that he almost wasn’t allowed on board. He really had a nose complex.

I: So well, we both have kind of a striking nose, I think? I mean, I don’t suffer from a nose complex.

But I have kind of a big nose.
C: Oh, I never really noticed. I don’t think so.

I: You don’t?

C: Yes it’s not too bad. It is kind of a Roman nose.

I: My nose is straight, that is nice.
But what does that say about us?

C: What does our nose say about us?

I: Yes, what can you tell about me given my nose shape

C: It depends, from what time in history and philosophy you are looking at it.

Shall I have a look in the book of big noses? Or rather the small book on big noses, what Aristotle said about your nose.

Let’s see. He has categorized every type of nose into schemes that you can all find in the book.

How shall we qualify your nose. Is it long and thin?

I: I’m not sure, I’m not an expert.

C: Long and pointing down, that qualifies. Long and broad, no.

Wide in the middle? No. Sharp? Yes. So that is picky and thoughtful. Thick and pointing upwards? No. Hook nose, another no.

I will read long and pointy, I think that fits you. “Brave, curious, angry. Vain. Easy to persuade into good or evil. Weak and credible.”

But your nosetip points downward slightly, so that would suggest:

“Wise, discrete, honest and loyal, someone who is good at bargaining.”

I: It sounds a little like a horoscope.
C: It sounds like a… horoscope?

I: Yes, like something that everyone would be able to recognize themselves in.

C: Yes, but you could really suffer from it.
Take Socrates, a philosopher, had a really short nose.

I: Hmhm.

C: Nostrils that you could directly look into.

So people debated about this for centuries: how someone, who is so smart, has a nose that suggests the opposite.

And yes, everyone had to recognize themselves in it, because everyone has some shape for a nose. And his was thick and pointing upwards.

That is described as: brave and proud, greedy, jealous, and vain, unhappy and controversial.

I: Right!
Are the images of Socrates somewhat accurate? It seems they are all based on the same statue?

C: Yes. Often that is not the case, noses were often idealized, but in Socrates’ case I think it is accurate.

Since Socrates’ pupils and other people are known to have been talking about his nose for hundreds of years, I think it is accurate in this case, reasonably accurate.

I: Ah, right.

C: Because, why would you depict a nose uglier, or not uglier but in a more negative way, if that does not represent the truth?

What you see at later times is that leaders, for example, let their noses depict in a different way

Because their nose shape does not match their function.

Lorenzo de Medici had a really flat nose, but he had it depicted as really pointy.

And he was really distrusted: how could someone with such a flat nose be a true leader? He really had to prove himself.

Because his nose said something else.

I: Remarkable that it had such a big influence.

And do you know if there has been any systematic research on how personality characteristics cohere with nose shapes?

C: Yes, generally speaking there has been. There have been studies by sociologists on faces.

What is the case, people have their first judgment ready in a split second, and different people even agree on this impression.

So men with baby faces for example are more often seen as innocent, and are acquitted more often.

But what is also shown in similar research, is that there is absolutely no relationship between the shape of parts of your face and your personality.

So in spite of ourselves, we find this physiognomy stupid, naïve and weird, but we still engage in it, en masse.

We judge people by the looks of their faces.

I: Yes. The first impression.

So this first impression is not necessarily accurate.
C: No, I find that really refreshing!

After I wrote this book, I really started looking at other people and myself differently.

Every time I realized that I judged someone by their looks, I thought: No, you can not know anything about this person! That is refreshing.

I: Yes indeed.

The research I did with Monique Smeets, suggested that you can change this first impression with perfume.

C: Right, yes.

That I believe immediately. Orson Welles tried to manipulate other’s impressions, even in the 20th century, by wearing nose prosthesis making his nose bigger.

He always wore a briefcase with nose prosthetics, because he thought: “with my small nose, people won’t take me seriously”.

They may think I don’t have character.

But indeed, you can put people on the wrong foot by using a fake nose, or through plastic surgery, or by having it painted differently…

But also through the use of perfumes.

I: Yes.

C: What kind of perfumes should you wear to be taken seriously?

I: Haha, well, we didn’t really dive that deep into the matter.

But what we show is that you can change the first impression that people have of you, by how you smell.

In that particular study, we only used one smell, one deodorant, or no deodorant.

That were the conditions.

From other studies, it seems that if you pick a fragrance for yourself, that works better than when someone else selects a fragrance for you.

C: Yes.

I: So not something that you did not select yourself.

C: Yes I really love those studies. I also mention that in the book:

Apparently, we as humans are able to intuitively smell when a fragrance will promote our own scent.

Like a loudspeaker. But in a subliminal way, not in a way that someone will think: oh! I smell sweat!

But in a way that someone thinks: huh, I smell vanilla, and orange. Because we share a large number of fragrant molecules with plants.

We send the same messages.

But we, and that is more culturally determined, only accept these messages if we think they are coated in non-human fumes.

Because I am sure that it is completely culturally determined that we reject sweat and other strong body odours.

I: Yes I agree, it is more the idea of sweat. As sweat in itself, I don’t think many people will find that it smells unpleasant, or necessarily pleasant for that matter

It’s more that it is just, like, yeah. Sometimes though, sometimes sweat just stinks, that is just what it is.

But at the same time, many types of sweat do not stink.

C: And it also depends, right? Whether you can smell on the other if that person has a complementary immune system.

So the sweat that smells nasty for one person, smells nice to the other.

I: Yes, that is possible.
It does have an influence.

Uhm, yes. Yeah so I have many more questions, but I also have the feeling we need to move towards an end somewhat.

Perhaps.. yes, so who had the best nose according to you? Of all people that enter the scene in your book.

C: So the “best”, in quotation marks because the message of my book is that good and bad is only a matter of perspective, context, and time

But what I find the most beautiful nose, is the nose of Laura Battiferri, a poet of the renaissance.

She was portrayed in profile, even though that was already out of fashion at the time.

So that her gorgeous nose could be seen.

And this had a reason. She was painted by Bronzino, a friend of her.

Bronzino was just like her a poet. And that nose refers, by its shape, to the greatest poet of all times, Dante Alighieri.

He was also known for his slim eagles nose who indicated his poetic qualities.

So with this, Bronzino says: “You should take this Laura Battiferi just as seriously as Dante.”

And nowadays, many women would be ashamed by such a nose.

Many women would consider having plastic surgery. And that is why I find this so inspiring.

On social media you now have the hashtag #sideprofileselfie

Women with noses like this, who have their picture taken in profile, and proudly say: this is my nose, and I don’t feel ashamed anymore.

And I think it is really important that we see this, in the right context, to shape our beauty standards.

If you see small noses in the context of fashion magazines all the time, suggesting: this is beauty.

If those magazines show noses like this, and if Barbie would get a hook nose at some point

Then people, men and women, will see those hook noses as beautiful.

I truly hope so, because I think they are beautiful.

I: Yes indeed.

Is that what we may learn? From your book?

C: Yes!

I: Among other things?

C: Yes, I finish with a story, it begins with Michelangelo, who was embarrassed his whole life for his very flat nose.

A big nose was the seat of honour during the renaissance, and that was what he lacked, he was hit on his nose, he was a bit of a vexing man.

Not that he deserved it.

At the end of my book, I tell a story that was passed on in that exact way.

The David is done. The giant David. The biblical hero.

And he has almost the exact same nose as Michelangelo, it has a bit of a diamond shape in it.

Not from the side, David’s nose is proud.

Anyway, the client enters the room, as the statue was done.

And he says: Beautiful Michelangelo! But the nose… that looks a bit big. Can’t you make that somewhat smaller?

And Michelangelo climbs a ladder, he took some grit in his hand, chisel in the other, ticks on the chisel with his hammer and drops some grit.

And the client says: Truly, Michelangelo, you really brought him to life. Now he is perfect.

In other words: whether we have a pretty or beautiful nose is not determined by the nose, it is how we look at it.

That is my message. And of course that is true for all parts of the body, and for everything in life.

I: Fantastic, a great message.

C: Thank you.

I: Yes really, very nice.

I think we should end with that.

We can of course have a chat afterwards.

For the interview, I think this is enough.

Or do you feel that I missed something?

C: No, not at all.

But of course, I recommend everyone to buy and read this book

And maybe have a look: What famous historical nose does my nose resemble?

I: I have also greatly enjoyed the book, it is full of really interesting and entertaining stories.

But also really interesting connections between things that I had never thought about before.

So I would also really recommend everyone to buy this book, you will really look and smell in a different way.

C: Yes exactly, looking and smelling. Nice.

I: Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *