“Bambina Pelosa” and her Hairy Family

May 5, 2012

The Renaissance art, historian Giovana Galli said, “in its power to pursue imaginative effects and bizarre, often lingered in research and in the representation of parties strange, exotic, able to inspire the awe and the amazement, so sought after” at the respectable courts of preposterously affluent monarchs, a propensity inherited from the late Middle Ages currents if we drop an eye on Bosch’s  highly fantastic paintings. Rich nobles fought to collect the oddest creatures to complete their households in the most intriguing manner: having an unusual animal or a scarcely (to totally) different looking human being as your companion was the 16th century equivalent for owning a Ferrari today. It proved one’s impeccable taste and money all together. No wonder teratology, the study of abnormalities of physiological development (aka monsters or freaks) had become wildly popular in the period, its fascination inciting the minds of uncountable artist to create that “extensive gallery of paintings” we can admire even nowadays, portraits of arresting characters like dwarfs, women with beards, two-headed men, obese or deform, albinos, etc. The mythological part of the real fauna.

So amongst the random courtiers present at banquets and slightly licentious parties mingled the eerie persons and Petrus Gonsalus, the founder of a top strange family, who suffered from a rare skin disease (Hypertrichosis universalis congenita) which covered all his face with fuzz, turning him into a living and more civilized yeti, made no exception. In fact, he had acquired quite a reputation across Europe, his presence being requested at the French Royal Court of Henry II (the one with the pretty-witty older lover, Diane de Poitiers, always disputing her monopole with the plump Italian Queen Catherina de Medici). There, performing as a walking exhibit of the exotic, he was maintained and educated, taking part in the jolly festivities  (agreeably less extravagant than those managed by Francisc I) where the fiery sangue francais was best observed. Food and drinks galore, Gonsalus represented the main attraction. And I assume he had his share of fun before the King died and he, under the insistent invitation of Margaret of Austria, migrated to the Flemish.

There, exerting his charm, he found a wife, got married and didn’t hesitate to produce offspring who bore their father’s malformation.

As you can obviously see in this 1580 image of our Petrus from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, he was quite an eligible man considering his possible usually boorish and hideous rivals. Perhaps his woman even loved him.

The couple followed their patron, Margaret of Austria, to Italy, where she was to marry Philibert of Savoy, then moved to Parma, causing many artist to paint miniatures, portraits or woodcuts depicting members of the hairy family. For example, Gonsalus Henry (son of Petrus) features in master’s Agostino Carracci’s “Hairy Arrigo, Fool Pietro and Dwarf Amon” , momentarily at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

I’ve found it all in an Italian article intituled “Strano e’ bello” (after seeing  the second picture beneath in an art book while casually browsing through the appealing volumes of  my fav library) which further says:

“the codex “Monstrorum historia” (1624) of the scholar Ulisse Aldrovandi, who founded the first chair of natural sciences at Bologna and considered the precursor of naturalistic observation, contains four woodcuts representing as many family members Gonsalus: Peter and three children, 8, 12 and respectively 20 years old. In this regard, it should be noted that Aldrovandi theorized the absolute importance of the figure as a tool of investigation and study of natural reality, so as to create a body of about five thousand pictures in tempera, often used as prototypes for the woodcut illustrations of its printed works, commissioned a group of artists who worked under his direction. It ‘s likely that one of these artists was Lavinia Fontana (Bologna, 1552 – Rome, 1614). She ‘s in fact the author of a painting, dated between 1594 and 1595, which – from the Musée du Chateau de Blois –  shows the infant Antoinette Gonzaga (Italian variant of the Gonsalus name).

“The Celestial Gallery”, at Palazzo Te and Palazzo Ducale, also present illustration of the girl.

Yet the most known work in which the little monster appears is by far Lavinia Fontana’s “Bambina Pelosa”.

“Lavinia Fontana, who began his career under the guidance of her father Prospero (really a Shakespearean name) , one of the protagonists of the late Mannerist culture in Bologna, was elegant interpreter of the models by Raphael, Perugino and Zuccari, and found his own portrait in the best kind of expression.

Having been found in the notebook of a delicate painter drawing in red pencil, depicting the face of a hairy girl, and whose date has been indicated in the late eighties and 1594-95, it was deduced that Antoinette’s image had been made by Fontana during a trip to the city of Bologna after the Marquise de Soragna, in which the child was examined, as is documented, by dall’Aldrovandi. The authenticity of the painting, the French museum acquired in 1997 by a Venetian antique dealer has never been questioned, not even the identity the effigy. It ‘possible that Lavinia Antoinette had had the opportunity to meet on several occasions, or that the painting is a reworking of the design, done at the request of the client, taking inspiration from other images of the girl then in circulation. Gonzaga, a fashionable courtier, evidently fetched natural “wonders”, so it is not strange that in his art collections appeared a portrait of one of Gonsalus kids. It ‘s possible that Vincenzo Gonzaga has requested it directly to the author, or all’Aldrovandi, since these in turn, frequent visitors to the Mantuan court had asked Gonsalus’ permission to take pictures of his precious  beasts.”

What do you think about this peculiar family?

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10 Responses to ““Bambina Pelosa” and her Hairy Family”

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  3. Susan Ozmore Says:

    This is fascinating. I didn’t know about this particular facet of this time period and had never heard of the family. I have always wondered a little about the attraction to fairs where people are on display for their abnormalities, but I guess it has a long history. Thanks for the info.


    • I didn’t know about it either until recently, when it just happened to stumble across the peculiar portrait of antoinette! I used to think the fascination for abnormal people began around the 18th century but it proved me wrong too

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