Between the myriad other occupations Leonardo was engaged in across his lengthy life, one of the lesser known (albeit as valuable as the “Annunciation”) are his absolutely riveting fables about an extensive range of subjects cunningly related. Being the epitome of the Renaissance man, it was merely natural for a genius painter, sculptor, architect, musician, inventor, mathematician et cetera to skilfully master the ancient art of fabricating moral stories that could effortlessly equal Aesop’s, whose work had barely been rediscovered and fairly accredited only decades before.

I was familiar with da Vinci’s literary products from a tender age thanks to a book of his I stumbled upon in the family library at age about 9. Then and now, one of my all time favorites from the polymath is a peculiar anecdote mockingly describing why Muhammad prohibited alcoholic drinks:

The Wine and Muhammad

Wine, the holy liquor of the grape, once rested in a gilded cup on Muhammad’s table, honor of which he was extremely proud. But an adverse thought troubled him instantly:

What am I doing? Why am I feeling so overjoyed? Is it that I fail to realize my death is approaching and soon I’ll have to leave this golden sanctuary for the abominable, fetid caves of the human body? Do I not anticipate the dreary moment when my perfumed liquid will turn into disgusting urine?’

The Wine cried out for the gods to hear, beseeching revenge for such unjust a faith and implored the Providence to put an end to so much humiliation. He asked that, since in his country grew the juiciest grapes, least these be spared the shame he was experiencing.

Then almighty Jupiter made the Wine Muhammad drank get to his head and influence his judgment so as to lose his mind. Thus the prophet committed a number of mistakes that grave that when he finally came to his senses, he banned all sorts of alcohol.

Hence the vineyards were abandoned with their fruits intact.

Terse and witty as one would expect of Leonardo but still quite hilarious in context, don’t you think?

Hardly a few years passed since the Moors lost their last Spanish stronghold in Granada to the Catholic Kings and the Europeans began mocking them persistently!

I have never made a secret from my numerous peculiarities, not ever refrained sharing them if the opportunity emerged, hence I trust the subject in which  I’m about to decree, today, right here, I have utterly reveled, should not rise any doubts about  my mental health for I’m neither a satanist nor an apostle of the Marquis de Sade, just so you know. And hopefully, since this matter is now settled, you’ll also better understand the reason behind my depicting how quite perfectly impressed I was by the horrid acts a certain Gilles de Rais man became (in)famous for a mere 600 years ago. Hopefully.

Because this post, “concocted” 15 minutes before my realizing it’s vital to walk out the door if I plan on attending school, is quite short of arguments to sustain why a gruesome child murder transfixed me thus. Extensive explanation are going to come from Huysman’s exquisitely written “Là-Bas” in electic quotes that, during one white night, wildly incited the more macabre parts of my imagination.

So here it goes:

“Gilles de Rais was born about 1404, in the château de Mâchecoul. We know nothing of his childhood. His father died about the end of October, 1415, and his mother almost immediately married a Sieur d’Estouville, abandoning her two sons, Gilles and René. They became the wards of their grandfather, Jean de Craon, ‘a man old and ancient and of exceeding great age,’ as the texts say. He seems to have allowed his two charges to run wild, and then to have got rid of Gilles by marrying him to Catherine de Thouars.

Gilles is known to have been at the court of the Dauphin five years later. His contemporaries represent him as a robust, active man, of striking beauty and rare elegance. We have no explicit statement as to the rôle he played in this court, but one can easily imagine what sort of treatment the richest baron in France received at the hands of an impoverished king.”

He fought alongside Jeanne d’Arc and was named Marshal of France, at the age of twenty-five.

“What is certain is that Gilles’s soul became saturated with mystical ideas. His whole history proves it.

He saw the Maid fulfil all her promises. She raised the siege of Orléans, had the king consecrated at Rheims, and then declared that her mission was accomplished and asked as a boon that she be permitted to return home.

At any rate, after losing track of him completely, we find that he has shut himself in at his castle of Tiffauges.

He is no longer the rough soldier, the uncouth fighting-man. At the time when the misdeeds are about to begin, the artist and man of letters develop in Gilles and, taking complete possession of him, incite him, under the impulsion of a perverted mysticism, to the most sophisticated of cruelties, the most delicate of crimes.

For he was almost alone in his time, this baron de Rais. In an age when his peers were simple brutes, he sought the delicate delirium of art, dreamed of a literature soul-searching and profound; he even composed a treatise on the art of evoking demons; he gloried in the music of the Church, and would have nothing about his that was not rare and difficult to obtain.

He was an erudite Latinist, a brilliant conversationalist, a sure and generous friend. He possessed a library extraordinary for an epoch when nothing was read but theology and lives of saints.”

And now brace yourselves.

“There was no transition between the two phases of his being. The moment Jeanne d’Arc was dead he fell into the hands of sorcerers who were the most learned of scoundrels and the most unscrupulous of scholars. These men who frequented the château de Tiffauges were fervent Latinists, marvellous conversationalists, possessors of forgotten arcana, guardians of world-old secrets.

To sum up: natural mysticism on one hand, and, on the other, daily association with savants obsessed by Satanism. The sword of Damocles hanging over his head, to be conjured away by the will of the Devil, perhaps. An ardent, a mad curiosity concerning the forbidden sciences. All this explains why, little by little, as the bonds uniting him to the world of alchemists and sorcerers grow stronger, he throws himself into the occult and is swept on by it into the most unthinkable crimes.

Then as to being a ‘ripper’ of children—and he didn’t immediately become one, no, Gilles did not violate and trucidate little boys until after he became convinced of the vanity of alchemy—why, he does not differ greatly from the other barons of his times.

He exceeds them in the magnitude of his debauches, in opulence of murders, and that’s all. It’s a fact.

And assuredly, the Marquis de Sade is only a timid bourgeois, a mediocre fantasist, beside him!”

To give an illustrative example:

“Vampirism satisfies him for months. He pollutes dead children, appeasing the fever of his desires in the blood smeared chill of the tomb. He even goes so far—one day when his supply of children is exhausted—as to disembowel a pregnant woman and sport with the fœtus. After these excesses he falls into horrible states of coma, similar to those heavy lethargies which overpowered Sergeant Bertrand after his violations of the grave. But if that leaden sleep is one of the known phases of ordinary vampirism, if Gilles de Rais was merely a sexual pervert, we must admit that he distinguished himself from the most delirious sadists, the most exquisite virtuosi in pain and murder, by a detail which seems extrahuman, it is so horrible.

As these terrifying atrocities, these monstrous outrages, no longer suffice him, he corrodes them with the essence of a rare sin. It is no longer the resolute, sagacious cruelty of the wild beast playing with the body of a victim. His ferocity does not remain merely carnal; it becomes spiritual. He wishes to make the child suffer both in body and soul. By a thoroughly Satanic cheat he deceives gratitude, dupes affection, and desecrates love. At a leap he passes the bounds of human infamy and lands plump in the darkest depth of Evil.

He contrives this: One of the unfortunate children is brought into his chamber, and hanged, by Bricqueville, Prelati, and de Sillé, to a hook fixed into the wall. Just at the moment when the child is suffocating, Gilles orders him to be taken down and the rope untied. With some precaution, he takes the child on his knees, revives him, caresses him, rocks him, dries his tears, and pointing to the accomplices, says, ‘These men are bad, but you see they obey me. Do not be afraid. I will save your life and take you back to your mother,’ and while the little one, wild with joy, kisses him and at that moment loves him, Gilles gently makes an incision in the back of the neck, rendering the child ‘languishing,’ to follow Gilles’s own expression, and when the head, not quite detached, bows, Gilles kneads the body, turns it about, and violates it, bellowing.”

He was eventually discovered and sentenced to death, not unexpectedly and certainly not undeserved. But, passing over the horrid slaughter he had conducted, don’t you find him starkly intriguing? He was the average good fellow and the next thing history records, Gilles decimates innocent children! What do you think of this leas crazy situation?

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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