It wasn't long ago, merely early September, but here it goes again (the subject matter):
One afternoon in 1594, the scientist Ulisse Aldrovandi visited the home of a wealthy friend in Bologna in northern Italy. Among other visitors at the elegant home was Isabella Pallavicina, the Marchesa of Soragna. With the marchesa was Antonietta Gonzales, the young daughter of Petrus Gonzales. Like her father and like most of her sisters and brothers, Antonietta Gonzales suffered from a genetic abnormality now known as hypertrichosis universalis, which meant much of her body was covered with hair.
Aldrovandi studied the little girl carefully and later noted that, “The girl’s face was entirely hairy on the front, except for the nostrils and her lips around the mouth. The hairs on her forehead were longer and rougher in comparison with those which covered her cheeks, although these are softer to touch than the rest of her body, and she was hairy on the foremost part of her back, and bristling with yellow hair up to the beginning of her loins.” This report, along with woodcuts of Antonietta and other hairy members of her family, were included in Monstrorum Historia, an enormous catalog of human and animal abnormalities mostly written by Aldrovandi, though not published until 1642, long after his death.
Aldrovandi’s friend Lavinia Fontana, a painter from Bologna known for her portraits of nobles and children, may have been at the house that day as well, for she later painted Antonietta’s portrait in oil, which now hangs in the castle of Blois in France. In the painting Antonietta holds a paper that gives details about her life: “Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable Marchesa of Soragna.” Other painters made portraits of the family as well, so they were known in German and Austrian courts as well as the French royal court in Paris and the courts of the Farnese family in Parma and Rome.
Gazing down from the walls of a French palace, or up from the pages of an illustrated book of the world’s unusual creatures, the portraits of the Gonzales family are dramatic and arresting. The father and children are what later came to be exhibited at sideshows as freaks of nature—“dog-faced girls” or “lion-men”—but they are also courtiers and court ladies of the Renaissance in ruffs and doublets and expensive gowns. They were not mocked or shunned but were welcomed in the courts of Europe, spending much of their lives among nobles, musicians, and artists. This double identity made them intriguing, both in their own day and today. Their genetic condition, though extremely rare—less than fifty cases have been documented worldwide since the sixteenth century—continues to be a source of fascination. Real individuals with hypertrichosis are featured on news reports around the globe, and fictional individuals appear in movies and television programs: as the main character in the 2001 film Blood Moon, as a supporting character in the 2006 biopic Fur about the legendary photographer Diane Arbus, and as a plot device in a recent episode of CSI.
The story of the Gonzales family connects with every important change in the era in which they lived: European overseas conquests, the cultural and artistic changes of the Renaissance, the bloody religious wars of the Reformation, major changes in science and medicine that proved to be a prelude to the Scientific Revolution. Not everything was changing though, and certain aspects of their lives were very much part of a continuum from an earlier world. Among these were ideas about gender and sexuality and real experiences these ideas created. Even among marvels, the lives of men and women were very different as was the meaning of sex in those lives.
Petrus Gonzales and his two hairy sons held minor official positions from time to time, so their names show up in account books, official reports, and other documents, and from one of the sons, Enrico, a few letters survive. The three Gonzales sisters, Antonietta, Francesca, and Maddalena, never held an official position or received a salary. They wrote no letters, or at least none that were saved. They thus left a fainter trace in the sources than did their father and brothers. In this, however, they were not very different from other girls and women of their day whose lives have also come down to us largely as whispers. Their fates paralleled those of sisters in many other families—Maddalena married and had at least one child, Francesca remained unmarried until she died as a middle-aged woman, and Antonietta probably died young.
When people looked at the Gonzales sisters, or their pictures, they saw beasts or monsters as well as young women, but this was also true when they looked at most women. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose ideas were still powerful in the sixteenth century, had described women as imperfect men, the result of something wrong with the conception that created them—their parents were too young or too old, or too diverse in age, or one of them was not healthy. Nature always aimed at perfection, and Aristotle termed anything less than perfect “monstrous”; a woman was thus “a deformity, but one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.”
Medieval and Renaissance theologians, philosophers, and poets placed women between men and animals in the hierarchy of creation, for women, in their view, had less reason than men and were therefore more like animals. Women were like horses, for both needed to be made obedient with a whip, went a common saying. A virtuous wife was like a snail, for she never left her house. A wicked wife was a venomous snake. Women who had power were particularly beastly: To their enemies, Catherine de Medici, the French queen at whose court the Gonzales family lived, was a tyrant “who holds us between her paws,” and Mary Queen of Scots, who lived at the French court as a girl when Petrus Gonzales did, a “monster of monsters, repugnant to the will of God.”
Even in their hairiness, the Gonzales sisters fit with existing patterns. People firmly believed that hairy men and women lived in the forests and mountains around them. Wild folk appeared in stories and sermons and were shown in sculpture, paintings, stained glass, tapestries, and on dishes, chests, drain downspouts, and playing cards. Most were thought to be violent and fearsome, attacking travelers with clubs or uprooted trees, snatching children, and howling with rage, but some were revered as saints.
Both terrifying and saintly wild folk included many women. Everyone knew about Mary Magdalene, whose life story became more elaborate over the centuries. According to the standard story, Mary and some companions, set adrift by heartless nonbelievers in a boat without a rudder, landed in southern France. (That she was pregnant with Jesus’ baby at the time is a story invented more recently.) She preached to the local people, winning many converts, and then lived alone in a cave, doing penance for her formerly sinful life. The barren surroundings offered no food, but Mary was miraculously taken up to heaven seven times a day by angels, an experience that replaced her need for earthly food. Mary’s body became covered with hair, sometimes shown as beautiful flowing strands and sometimes as rough fur. The hair transformed her into a saintly wild woman, and she became a model for legends of other saintly women whose hair helped protect their honor. Images of the hairy Magdalene were in many churches in the sixteenth century, and people may have been reminded of her when they saw the Gonzales girls.
There were other tales of hairy women besides those about saints. From Greek mythology came the story of the Gorgons, female monsters with writhing snakes as hair who turned anyone who looked at them into stone. In the medieval German epic Wolfdietrich the hero—who had earlier been saved by a pack of wolves from being killed at the order of his father—encounters Raue Else, a wild woman who runs on all fours toward his fire. She “had a body covered with a thick hairy pelt, slimy and wet like the bride of the devil” and demands that Wolfdietrich love her. He refuses, she turns him into a wild man, he promises to marry her if she will become a Christian, she does, and poof! She turns back into her former self, a smooth-skinned princess.
Destructive hairy women also included witches. In the Spanish play La Celestina, and in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, female witches are described as bearded. Witches did not need facial hair to make them seem evil, however. The long, unruly hair on their heads was enough. Respectable married women always covered their hair with some kind of hat or kerchief, and prostitutes were routinely forbidden to wear head coverings that might disguise their dishonorable occupation. Witches’ uncovered hair was a sign of their uncontrolled sexuality and hinted at their demonic lovers. Witches are often shown with animal companions, and their hair blends into that of the animal as they ride goats through the darkness or nuzzle cats. According to the demonology that underlies beliefs about witchcraft, these animals might be demons in disguise. Even if they were not, showing naked witches in close contact with animals suggested sexual relations between them and placed witches within the realm of the beasts.
Witches were not the only women suspected of having sex with animals. A French pamphlet of 1600 told of an infant born in Paris, the product of sex between a chambermaid and a monkey. The mother admitted this while being tortured; she and the child and the monkey were all burned together, and readers of the pamphlet were warned to “pray constantly to God” so that Satan would not lead them into such “sinister evil doing.” Those who saw the Gonzales sisters all knew of such stories and may have wondered if these children, too, were God’s punishment for unnatural sex.
Sex between humans was itself beastly to many commentators of the period. In discussing Genesis 1:28 (“Be fruitful and multiply”), Martin Luther notes that through lust “the body becomes downright brutish and cannot beget in the knowledge of God,” and that human “procreation [is] only slightly more moderate than that of the brutes.” Women who lust were particularly animalistic. As Dorothy Leigh, the author of The Mother’s Blessing, an advice manual for women that went through many printings in the seventeenth century, put it: “The woman that is infected by the sin of uncleanness, is worse than a beast, because it desires because of its nature, but she desires to satisfy her corrupt lusts…let women be persuaded by this discourse, to embrace chastity, without which, we are mere beasts, and not women.”
How much did Petrus’ wife Catherine—who was an unhairy Parisian woman—think about all this when she agreed to marry him? She would have known that her husband’s status as an oddity meant that he would probably be supported at some noble court for the rest of his life. She would have decent clothes and enough to eat, as would her children. Like many women, she had to weigh these material advantages against negative factors—other women had to decide whether to marry men known to be violent drunkards or gambling wastrels, and she had to decide whether to marry a man who was unusually hairy. Money was most likely behind Catherine’s acceptance of a marriage with Petrus, but because the sources are silent we are free to imagine that other factors played a role as well. Perhaps she was more able than most people of her day to ignore standard ideas about monsters, beasts, and wild men, and to see the person within the animal-like exterior? The ability of love to overcome all boundaries is a modern romantic notion, but it was not unknown in the sixteenth century. Love leads to suicide in one of Shakespeare’s plays, but in many more it leads to marriage. The weddings happen only at the very end, however, for the plots in these plays are driven by women and men falling in love with people they could never marry—shepherdesses fall for princes, men fall for men, women for women. Eventually the lovers reveal they are not what they seem to be, but instead someone who is an appropriate spouse, and the wedding festivities begin. Thus Catherine may have been willing to overlook the differences between her and Petrus—as were many of Shakespeare’s characters when confronted with a love interest unlike themselves—or she may have been fascinated by it, as were Shakespeare’s audiences.
Stories of love and marriage involving people who are not what they seemed were told in plays, poems, and songs, and one in particular might have had a special meaning to Catherine. From Greek mythology came the tale we now call “the Beauty and the Beast,” in which a lovely young woman is married to a horrible beast, who turns out to be a prince in disguise. In the original Greek version the young woman agrees to the marriage out of love for her father, who otherwise will die. By the sixteenth century, in stories told and published in Germany, Italy, and France, she is motivated by her love for the man within the animal-like exterior. It is likely that the artists who painted the Gonzales family were all familiar with the story, and those who saw the paintings of the lovely Catherine and the hairy Petrus—or saw the couple themselves—could not help but be reminded of it. Petrus would never turn into a handsome prince, of course, but he was connected to princes and educated in a princely fashion, qualities in a husband that any woman would have valued.
Three of the Gonzales children also married, so speculations about what Catherine was thinking can extend to the spouses of her children. Her two sons both had positions as officials for the Farneses, and they married poor girls, so money and the influence of their powerful patrons were central. Money also played a prominent role in the marriage of Maddalena. She had received a house from the Farneses that served as her dowry, and she married a man attached to the Farnese court, a man who held the position of keeper of the family’s hunting dogs. Did the Farneses choose a man with this particular occupation as a husband for the hairy Maddalena because they thought it was appropriate, or because they thought it was amusing? Perhaps both. Did Maddalena’s husband agree to the match solely because of the money, or was he also attracted to the young woman, about whom someone had earlier commented “if she didn’t have hair in her face, she would be a pretty girl”? Might Maddalena have shaved her face, so that she looked more attractive and less strange? Like his mother-in-law, and like most spouses in the sixteenth century, her husband left no record of his motives. The couple had at least one daughter, but then or now, children are no proof of love, or even of fondness. So like so much else about this family, we will never know.
From the verbal desciptions and the many portraits, what we can know is that the story of the Gonzales sisters highlights a complex relationship between beastliness, monstrosity, and sex. Parts of their story are reflective of the times in which they lived and seem strange to us, but other parts are very familiar. We have not lost our fascination with people, and particularly with women who inhabit the margins between human and animal, marvel, and monster.