The Girl with the Hairy Face

Thursday, April 20th 2023

by Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552-1614)

Portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus


H. 54.5 cm W. 47 cm.
(old restorations)

In an ancient carved giltwood frame.
On the frame at the bottom: "Dell' isole Canarie fu condotta al re Enrico, poi da questo duca di Parma inviata: nel 159(?) dipinto" (From the Canary Islands, it was brought to King Henry, then sent by him to the Duke of Parma: in 159(?), it was painted)

Our painting is to be compared with the composition by Lavinia Fontana kept in the Musée des Beaux-arts
of Blois.

Provenance: collection of the Berillon family, whose presence in Burgundy can be attested starting in the 16th century.

Young Antonietta Gonsalvus, aka Tognina Gonzales, went down in history thanks to her portrait painted around 1595 by Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana (Musée des Beaux-Arts, château de Blois, n°997.1.1). Like her father and most of her siblings, « Tognina » suffered from hypertrichosis, a genetic condition causing an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. She was the daughter of Tenerife-born Pedro Gonzales, who as a ten-year old was offered to French King Henri II on the occasion of his 1547 coronation. Ownership of such a “wild man” was a source of prestige for the King, who gifted him a part of the Fontainebleau castle’s gardens and had him raised together with the children of his Court. Pedro, renamed Petrus Gonsalvus, wedded Catherine Raffelin after King Henri’s 1559 death. Their marriage may have inspired the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.

After Catherine de Medici’s 1589 death, the Gonsalvus family and their seven children were sent to Italy where they were hosted by various noble families. The sheet with Italian writings held by Antonietta on this painting, similar to the one that can be seen on the portrait of her held in the collections of the Blois Castle, tells the story of her family: “Don Pietro, a savage discovered on the Canary Islands, was shipped to his Serene Highness Henri King of France and from there to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. I, Antonietta, was born from him and today I can be found at the Court of Dame Isabella Pallavicina, the Honorable Marquise of Soragna”.

The Gonsalvuses journey from France to Italy is well known thanks to the scientific observations that were made at each stop. Merry Wiesner-Hanks remarkably chronicled it in her 2009 book "The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds" (Yale University Press Publisher). In Basel, physician Felix Platter examined two of the children and commissioned their portraits. Representing Maddalena Gonzales and one of her siblings, they were sent to Archduke Ferdinand II and hung in his castle of Ambras, the name of which was later given to the syndrome represented on these paintings.

In 1594, Antonietta, who would have been about fifteen at the time, was examined in Bologna by Ulisse Aldrovandi, whose scientific notes would not be published until 1642 in the book "Monstrorum Historia". It was then that his friend, painter Lavinia Fontana, who had been trained by Sophonisba Anguissola, painted the portrait held in Blois. At the time, Fontana was collaborating with other male and female painters on Aldrovandi's forthcoming publishing project, of which 8,000 watercolors have been preserved. One of them is a portrait of a girl looking like Antonietta, who is depicted with the same flowers in her hair and the same brocade dress as on our painting. However, the inscription on this portrait reads: "A hairy woman of twenty whose head resembles that of a monkey, but who is not hairy on the rest of her body".

An object of popular curiosity during her lifetime, either inspiring wild fear or mere defiance akin to the one felt towards an animal, at other times considered as precious enough to be offered as a gift, Antonietta is a little girl like no other in the history of painting. The emergence of this unknown canvas, painted by a female artist and representing a child who disappeared without a trace at the end of the 16th century in Italy, is all the more striking as it coincides with an exciting exhibition on… hair (“Des cheveux et des Poils”) at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

translated by Sabine Vincenot
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