Antonietta Gonsalvus by Lavinia Fontana: Is It the Original?

Monday, May 29th 2023

La Gazette Drouot, Caroline Legrand

The disturbing story of Antonietta Gonsalvus, suffering from hypertrichosis, will not leave you indifferent. Her portrait is one of the stars of the Garden Party organized at Château d'Artigny, alongside a wooden 2 CV and a manuscript by Alfred Jarry, among others.

The little girl is all dressed up, wearing an embroidered dress and refined clothing, as usual, since everyone liked to dress her like a doll. She stands facing us, holding a paper recounting her family's incredible history. But in Antonietta's eyes, painter Lavinia Fontana has captured the gentleness, and no doubt the anxiety, of this 10-year-old child considered an animal because of her illness: hypertrichosis. The marriage of her father, Pedro Gonzales, who, like Antonietta, suffered from this disease that causes abundant facial hair, and her mother, Catherine Raffelin, is said to have inspired Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve to write the story of Beauty and the Beast, published in 1740. Born in Tenerife, Pedro was given as a gift to King Henri II of France in 1547, at the age of 10, for his coronation. Although Pedro was then raised with the other children of the Fontainebleau court, he was a source of royal prestige, exhibited like a collector's item. When the king died in 1559, Pedro was married and remained at court until the death of Catherine de Médicis thirty years later.

Having fallen out of favor, the Gonsalvus family and their seven children, four of whom suffered from the disease, left for Italy in search of new protectors. In 1591, they were finally placed under the guardianship of the Duke of Parma, Ranuce de Farnese, and Antonietta was presented to Isabella Pallavicina, Marquise de Soragna. Scientists and artists alike were intrigued by the family, making them the first described cases of hypertrichosis in history. In 1594, Antonietta was examined by Ulisse Aldrovandi, whose notes were published in 1642 under the title Monstrorum historia. He was a friend of Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), a pupil of Sophonisba Anguissola and a well-known Mannerist painter whose portraits and self-portraits were renowned for their psychological rendering. Fontana painted this portrait as part of her collaboration on the approximately eight thousand watercolors that illustrate Aldrovandi's work. There is no trace of Antonietta in the late 16th century, and the year of her death is unknown. A similar portrait of Lavinia Fontana is preserved in Catherine de Medici's bedroom at Château de Blois. But the one in Château d'Artigny, which came from the Berillon family—who had lived in Burgundy since the 16th century—could, according to experts, be the original version.
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