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?

Once upon a time in the British Parliament, more precisely in the House of Commons,  the juiciest gossip topic apart the outbreak of a new World War and the perpetual conflicts with Berlin was the enmity between prominent politician Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), then occupying the privileged position of Prime Minister, and the audacious Viscountess Nancy Astor (1879 –1964 ), known to be the first woman sitting as a Member of the Parliament, who, from some reason or another, could not at all live in mutual tolerance.


The two were reputed for a series of sarcastic dialogues whose lines were ping-ponged on the halls of Westminster Palace to the delight of the many accidental witnesses that obviously couldn’t refrain a smile when hearing such virulent interlocutions like the following:

Nancy Astor: Winston, you are drunk.

Winston Churchill: And you, madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning!

Any other lady would’ve slapped him, offended by this type of rudeness which seemed as if taken from Oscar Wilde’s plays, but not our Nancy, no, for she was an adept of intelligent revenge and on numerous times had the chance to retort smartly a mocking proposition to equal the score.

Thus, when the stout Winston attempted to both tease and ridicule her by stating that “having a woman in Parliament is like having one intrude” on him “in the bathroom”, she serenely replied: “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears”, provoking general dissimulated laughter amongst the stiff diplomats, we can imagine, to her satisfaction.

Also, at his impolite question about what disguise  he should wear so that nobody could recognize him at the Astor’s “stupid” masquerade ball, Nancy ironically responded using rhetoric: “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?”

Yet by far my favorite is the immortal exchange of witty words which Consuelo, Duchess of Malborough, registers in her “the Glitter and the Gold” autobiography: “Lady Astor and Winston were actuaded by a strong antipathy one for the other, so much so that one never invited them together, dreading the inevitable explosion bound to occur. It was therefore unfortunate than on one of her visits to Blenheim, when my son was host, Churchill should have chosen to appear. The expected result of their encounter was not long in coming; after a heated argument on some trivial matter Nancy, with a fervor whose sincerity could not be doubted, shouted, ‘If I were you wife I woul poison your coffee!’ Whereupon Winston with equal heat and sincerity answered ‘And if I were your husband I would drink it!’

That’s a first-hand experience I wish I could boast with!

Isn’t it comical?

I’ve been trying to avoid the subject since I started to write on this blog regarding various interesting and undoubtedly eccentric historical characters but it clearly seems that my resolution wasn’t meant to be accomplished: I just have to tell you about my utter obsession with the fair Empress Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie of Austria you most likely know under her familiar nickname also used as the title of the Romy Schneider adapted biographic movie and for the popular cartoon, Sissi.


As a child I was tremendously mesmerized by the richness of the ancient Greek Pantheon whose artful reflection could be admired in the two major literary works of pre-christian times, Homer’s  “Iliad” and “Odyssey” which were, coincidentally, as I was to find later on,  Sissi’s favorite reads (we also shared the same infatuation with the legendary Achilles). No wonder I instantly fell in love with her character once I happened to catch some further information related to the Bavarian beauteous royalty depicted galore in the epoch novels I had barely begun to relish. We’ve so much in common despite being a century apart, from stylistic tastes to the hair color (chestnut with golden tints)  and the day we were born in (Sunday…) that I couldn’t refrain avidly searching for more juicy anecdotes, stories, journals, poems and news papers columns to complete the figure I grew to contemplate daily, wondering how she did certain things the rigid court etiquette imposed at the same time  managing to accumulate enough strenght for protecting her libertine and bohemian spirit from the obligations required as the consort of Austria’s Emperor, Franz Joseph. Her gowns were pure refinement and her habits awoke uncountable rumors amongst the high society smug chaps hence it was near to impossible my not being enchanted by Sissi. The more I found, the eager I became to stumble across new dimensions of her personality and learn fresh facts connected with her bizarre propensities the whole of Vienna and even Europe gossiped about. Enigmatic, a bit tragic, non-conformist: what is not to love?

Alas, a single post would never incorporate  half of her deliciously vivid life, lyric works and, overall, persona so I’ll confine to discussing miscellaneous customs the Empress of Loneliness was renowned for throughout Europe and even parts of the other continents which couldn’t have been spared of her vitriolic existence.

Today I thought of apportioning you urban myths (surprisingly often true) relating Sissi’s flabbergasting pulchritude which alas defined the great woman in the eyes of most of her contemporaries and share some of her beauty obsessions which made the main topic of countless fashion magazines that were actual gospels for the wannabe socialite ladies in the 19th century.

One could correctly state that Sissi’s characteristic trait, concealing a high intellect and amazing linguistic capacities (she was fluent in 8 modern languages plus ancient Greek and the traditional Latin), was  her unnatural appearance, the only thing with which she could fearlessly confront the world, concomitantly preserving her sensible ego and draw the benevolent attention of large masses of adorers. Her striking silhouette and the incredible long hair framing her vixen face were, in fact, the first factors to contribute to Franz Joseph’s shallow infatuation with a girl (she had barely turned 16 the summer they properly met) whom  his mother, controlling Archduchess Sophie, thoroughly disapproved as she had had elected Sissi’s elder sister, Duchess Helene, to become her obedient daughter-in-law, the future Empress of Austria, a position requiring virtues the shrewd Archduchess pretended not to find in the childish Sissi. And perhaps she was right in the end, Sissi proving to be most incompatible with her newly acquired title, but this opens a whole other topic I don’t aim to debate here.

So Sissi was an animated piece of jewel possessing a profuse appeal: no wonder the mob worshiped her from day one, especially the Hungarians identifying their need of emancipation with her rebel attitude.

Enhancing her native handsomeness, she dissimulated a most sensitive core, faster gaining the endorsement of those who condemned the girl for not being subdued by the protocol (except the Archduchess- she was the average eternally displeased mother-in-law).

Tall (she had 172 cm, more than her husband despite being pictured smaller in the official portraits not to emasculate him), slender to superlative, her tight leather corsets diminishing a wasp waist Sissi managed to keep until death, moment when she was sixty,  the Empress’s hallmark was categorically the Rapunzel-like brass hair inherited from the majority of the female ancestors in the Wittelsbach family. She could complain of it giving her headaches but it totally worth it, I think.

It took a whole day to wash it appropriately in the wanted essence of cognac and egg once every two weeks, being forced to cancel any formal obligation, and the routine care of her abundant mane lasted least 3 hours, quite a prone to bizarre ceremonial.

Than again, organizing her beauty ritual was the sole thing she could control in her otherwise oppressed early life, under the Archduchess’s directives,  and continued as a rule during her later years. The rigorousness with which she practiced it only reflected a subliminal will to put some order in her chaotic existence and thus Sissi, often restless to the point of hyperactivity, very impatient, gathered the determination to sit passive at her “table which was moved to the middle of the room and covered with a white cloth”, “shrouded in a laced peignoir” to let the hairdresser Franziska (Fanny) Feifalik  create her famous ornate hairstyles. She recognized: “I’m the slave of my hair.”

And because exclusively magic could satisfy her aesthetic exigencies, Fanny had to resort to tricks: knowing the Empress scolded her for each and every hair that fell out throughout the combing, braiding and pinning Sissi’s rich tresses, she stuck it to an adhesive band hidden in her apron, bypassing the rage of her mistress when she was supposed to present it in a special bowl at the counting. Well, that’s an obsession and it isn’t as if Sissi could spare herself from fallen hair by numbering it!

Contrary to the popular myths, she even tasked Feifaluk with tweezing gray hairs away  but in her last months Sissi was reported to still have plentiful locks, “though streaked with silver threads”, a not so insignificant achievement.

Franz Joseph had the following paintings of his wife hanging in his private chambers at Hofburg Palace and it’s obvious he never ceased to be fascinated with the enigmatic Sissi despite being conventionally separated. They show her dramatic curls at their finest.

Yet this wasn’t the single thing she tended.

Devotee of natural looks, the refined Sissi disapproved cosmetics Parisians were mad to use galore, preferring instead tonics and nightly facial masks made of silk (presumably against wrinkles), raw veal to moisturize the skin or crushed strawberries. The favorite creme, ” Céleste”, was compounded from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil and rosewater but she didn’t prized it as much as the previous treatments. Pretty wacko, right?

Wait till I tell you how she refused to part her lips while speaking because she found her teeth too yellow and deteriorated to be exposed!

Furthermore, for maintaining the hourglass figure she slept with cloths soaked in either violet- or cider-vinegar above her hips,  taking both a shower every morning and an olive oil bath in the evening , luxuries only the affluent people could permit. Unfortunately, these harsh cures caused several major health issues decades later, aggravating her arthritis and nervous anorexia which forced Sissi to search milder climates, a perfect pretext to stay well away from Vienna and implicitly her husband. In the benefit of her beauty, she traveled with 40 tons of baggage and 90 servants, not at all a negligible quantity. As a matter of fact, haunted by the prospect of getting old and ugly, she would have done a lot more.

After age 32, Sissi vehemently rejected to pose for portraits, believing  her fetching image had begun to fade and the world should remember her young, vivid. Ironically, she remained gorgeous yet another 20 to 30 years, information attained from eyewitnesses and the few photographs taken without her approval while she was strolling down crowded boulevards, her face screened by parasols or leather fans.

That’s what she said with her own sensuous mouth: “When I’ll grow old I shall retire definitively from public life for nothing is more horrible than watching how you gradually  transform into an utter mummy, ending up crawling like a worm- absolutely dreadful! One day I’ll cover my face with a veil and nobody, not even my closest friends, will be able to gaze upon me.”

She kept her promise.

The photo above depicts her exactly as she wished: her hair is dressed elaborately to reassemble a coronet to “get rid of the other one” (the Imperial crown), her attire is simple but majestic and the look in her piercing, melancholic eyes just seizes the audience.

Her efforts to preserve this ephemeral pulchritude paid off eventually and I can’t help to stare at Sissi in silent marvel.

Don’t you?

I saw the most amusing historical movie during a film marathon last night and I just couldn’t abstain from writing about it today as it depicts a period marked by one incredible invention all women, especially the lonely depressed ladies with cats, should prize enormously: after the sewing machine, the fan, the toaster, and the teakettle, roll the red carpet for the electric vibrator, a domestic tool no house must lack precisely in our kind of society!

We modern humans tend to have this awfully prejudiced impression that old Victorians lived in utter prudishness, chastity and by the abstinent canons religion shallowly imposed, genuine saints from the Bible who repressed any vice in favor of atonement. No, really. With this type of intuition you’d lose the lottery for the happy people of the 19th century were, be prepared, the epitome of elegant depravity, pleasure centers concealed by crinoline dresses and in full-length trousers better than presently as they could effortlessly keep the appearances unharmed within these superficial perimeters.

So the Victorians gambled, cultivated vanity and fornicated galore in their perfectly and seldom not that perfectly screened intimacy, men freer than women who sought to emancipate nonetheless, gaining same privileges their sex rivals boasted to have at their fancy Club meetings (while the docile wives tended the household affairs). No wonder half the female population of London was diagnosed with hysteria, a wrongly interpreted mind disease majorly provoked by sexual frustration at widows and young ardent spouses of puritans or homosexuals who had to be treated in private “cabinets” with vaginal massage… by hand.

It’s this most amusing scene in the film recommended above which depicts gorgeously how such a curing session proceeded, where and what was the doctor’s position. You can imagine it was terribly wearing for the fellow, not to mention a tad distressing and gross in the case of Methuselah patients spreading…

Thank Gos someone was witty enough to invent the electrified version and create a very useful vibrator the women could take home thus spearing one’s time and hand-ache. Mr. Mortimer Granville and his wealthy scientific friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe fathered the first object of this kind in the 1880’s with a huge success the movie celebrates nicely under Tanya Wexler’s direction.

The suffragettes, especially, were tremendously happy with this innovation for how would have they resisted rejecting intercourse if the vibrator wasn’t there to support their cause?

Exactly when you assumed that you’ve seen or experienced all the possible scripts in which you’re firendzoned, seemingly the romantic horror of our century, here comes the Middle Ages feminist and patented poet, French-Italian Christine de Pizan (1363 – c. 1430) with a brand new formula of expelling her male suitors: if poems, she mused, are chief means of expressing borderless love to one’s own sweetheart, why not turn them into torture tools by sending through them messages like “I’d rather we remained pals” ? According to my humble judgment, coincidentally elaborated by historians too, sounds legit.


Here’s the juicy example I found browsing an old manuscript available on internet courtesy to my favorite digital library, Gallica:

Long temps a que je perdi
Tout mon soulas et ma joye,
Par la mort que je maudi
Souvent; car mis m'a en voye
De jamais nul bien avoir;
Si m'en doy par droit blasmer;
N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir
De faire ami, ne d'amer.  

Ne sçay qu'en deux ne fendi
Mon cuer, du dueil que j'avoye
Trop plus grant que je ne di,
Ne que dire ne sçaroye,
Encor mettre en nonchaloir
Ne puis mon corroux amer;
N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir
De faire ami, ne d'amer.  

Depuis lors je n'entendi
A mener soulas ne joye;
Si en est tout arudi
Le sentement que j'avoye.
Car je perdi tout l'espoir
Ou me souloie affermer.
N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir
De faire ami, ne d'amer.

And, as I bet you haven’t been able to comprehend much, let me enlighten you with the approximate translation: I was hurt and men trifled with my poor, feeble heart so you, dear, loyal buddy, you, who bear for me these strong, steady feelings… have no chance but remain my platonic friend. The repeating syntagm “de faire ami, ne d’amer” (make friends, not lovers”) gives both the tone and the title of the composition and were doubtlessly a delight for the unfortunate guy to whom she had addressed them.

These are the lyrical words with which gracious Christine shuddered all her admirer’s hopes like the merciless widow she was, excusing her insensibility by the contrary, too much sentiment engaged in previous affairs that, ending disastrously due to unrecorded factors, traumatized the poor woman to such extent she refused to adventure walking once more on the risky wire of love. You’d be tactless to insist proclaiming your adoration after being dedicated this, right?

Smart woman.

christine de pizan

Don’t you consider it a great example of friendzoned in the Middle Ages?

Poor Arabian women?

January 29, 2012

How we, cosmopolite, liberal Europeans, with pronounced anti-sexist views and very democratic in behavior (really?), love to pity our Islamic sisters, the poor veiled ladies obviously maltreated by their husbands, oppressed by their discriminatory culture which, in addition, breeds mass-terrorist! We feel so superior, so falsely advanced and philanthropic, if we sustain their “cause” or, after reading the tragic memoir of one struggling Arabian wife, deeply involve in “aid Muslim women” organizations with the strongest sense of self-importance! It’s our duty to support them and actively participate in their externally imposed adaptation to the modern values. We made a mean of boasting with our humanitarian actions from it!


And I don’t state that encouraging emancipation is, though majorly artificial, something blameworthy (after all, help’s inevitably welcomed), but it’s wrong to treat Arabian women as being clearly inferior. Not to say it’s another form of the unfairness we claim to want to diminish.

We, sophisticated, unprejudiced lads, seem to have forgotten the funny contrast between our histories. Bet you don’t expect what I’m about to tell.

While the fancy, highly “cultivated” European dame of the Early Meddle Ages was spending her time doing oh-so-complicated things like this…

woman in the middle ages

…and, if aristocratic enough, this…

women spinning

…the poor Muslim gals had to settle on easier jobs, fitted for their limited capacities, like, I don’t know, patronizing world’s first University?

When the erudition of the female population was badly seen by Christiandom and women had to be satisfied with mere basic knowledge so they could remain the docile, plain brides men desired, Fatima al-Fihri (died 880), nicknamed Oum al Banine (meaning “the mother of the children”) founded the oldest academic degree-granting University existing today, the University of Qarawiyyin, in Morocco. Daughter of a wealthy businessman, Mohamed al-Fihri, she invested the money inherited from her father to build gathering locations for scholars. Her sister, Mariam, is said to have been responsible for the construction of the Al-Andalus (Andalusian) mosque in Fes.

university of qairawan

This was late 9th century, almost 200 to 400 years before the birth of our more educated Hildegard of Bingen (1097- 1179) and Christine de Pizan (1363- 1430).

The 10th century doesn’t disappoint either: around 950, Miriam al-Ijli al-Astrulabi hand-crafted intricate astrolabes, a premature type of global/ Sun/ Moon/ planets/ stars positioning system, which was an impressive deed for the epoch.


It’s sad, though, there’s not much information about these two, at least not in accessible language, ’cause it would be great to learn more of their lives and accomplishments. Personally, I discovered Miriam and Fatima’s vague stories from an informative exposition-program I stumbled across in Istanbul. It was called “1001 Inventions”  (if you need further details) and introduced to the public a list of the chief Islamic scientists, astronomers, doctors, architects, mathematicians, etc, amongst whom were our admirable ladies.

fatima-at exposition

miriam- at exposition


Summing up: it’s very nice to help and sponsor Muslim women to speak-up, claim their God-given rights, liberate or whatever, yet you should bear in mind that they’re far from being pathetic and poor, on the contrary: they have a legacy we can’t brag with.

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