The Case of a Broken Nose

Edwin Smith Papyrus - broken nose

Edwin Smith Papyrus, Case 11

Broken noses have long disfigured history: from the erroneous legend of Napoleon and his troops firing a cannonball at the nose of the Greek Sphinx during the French campaign in Egypt, to the thousands of nose-less statues from antiquity. Whilst some were likely to have been deliberately vandalised by other groups of people, especially the early Christians, the most likely cause of noselessness is probably an accidental drop.

In 2013, the artist Jonathon Monk created five identical busts of himself, all in Greco-Roman style, meticulously sculpted and polished to give the impression of marble. Monk granted five artists associated with the Arte Povera movement with a specially selected hammer and invited them to try their hand at his nose. Monk’s art is full of mockery and imitation, and Senza Titulo is definitely no exception, taking inspiration from the stylised portraits of antiquity complete (or incomplete, we should say) with broken nose.

Jonathon monk Senza Titulo

Senza Titulo, Jonathan Monk (Lisson Galley, 2013)

Whilst broken noses seem to figure greatly in our conception of historical faces, at least in sculpture, the attempt to fix them has an equally, if not more exciting story. The Hieroglyphics shown above are from a famous papyrus known today by the dealer who bought it, an American Egyptologist named Edwin Smith. The papyrus, which has been dated to about 1600bc, appears to be a medical manual, describing 48 different ‘cases’ and for each providing description, diagnosis and treatment.  Case 11 describes the insertion of material plugs, soaked in ointment, which should be inserted into the nose and linen rolls which act as splints, allowing the bone to set straight. Three more cases also describe surgical solutions for nasal wounds. Whilst the text provides us with a fascinating insight into early medical writings in the region, the treatments provided all concern reconstruction from the remaining structure of the nose. A phenomenon which emerged centuries later, in another part of the world, brings us closer to the nose-job with which we are familiar today.

An ancient Sanskrit text from the Vedic period, dated around 600bc, provides us with evidence of one of the earliest surgeons of recorded history. The text is an encyclopedic treatise entitled Sushruta Samhita, which translates as Sushruta’s Compendium, which records surgical and medical practices. The text features detailed descriptions of, among many things, the repair of a cleft lip, ear lobe repair, the classification of burns, and the use of wine as an anesthetic. The text is most often cited, however, for its account of Rhinoplasty, the first of its kind. Derived from the Ancient Greek word ῥίς (rhis) meaning nose and πλάσσειν (plassein) meaning ‘to shape’, the term is more commonly known as a nose job. The operation describes how skin is grafted from the cheek as a flap, turned back to cover the nose and stitched in place. By the 8th century ad, the text had been translated into Arabic and continued to influence medical practices, emerging in Renaissance Italy with the surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi, who used instead skin from the upper arm. Its methods can be traced through to modern-day surgical practices.

Some broken noses were irreparable, even with the genius of Sushruta. The nose of Byzantine emperor Justinian II was object of mutilation after the emperor’s ruthless policies and extortion caused riots in 695 ad. His nose was cut off by the general Leontios, to make him unfit for ruling, part of a tradition of mutilation for political ends which also included blinding and castration. In the Byzantine tradition, the emperor was a reflection of god and, as a result, had to be physically sound. In the case of Justinian, however, the attack was short-lived. Agnellus of Ravenna writes how the emperor was restored to his throne with the support of the Bulgars and, once installed again, kitted himself out with a nose and ears made of gold (137).

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Nasothek, Glyptotek Museum, Copenhagen

Historians and Archaeologists have also tried their hand at repairing the broken noses of the past, as the Nasothek collection (from the Latin nasus, ‘nose’and Greek θήκη, ‘container’) at the Glyptotek museum in Cophenhagen demonstrates. The 19th century conservationists, likewise seeking the unity of a perfect face, filled in the missing noses of antiquity. Today these noses, which have been systematically removed in a process of ‘derestoration’, are housed in their own part of the museum as a reminder of the damage that a historical nose-job can cause.