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In the late 16th century, William Shakespeare was in his 30s, and staging plays like As You Like It, where Rosalind mentions the “howling of Irish wolves against the moon.” (That’s from Act V scene ii). While scholars today debate whether or not that’s a reference to the legend of werewolves, we know from a painting completed in 1595 that there was at least one family whose hereditary disease made many in Europe believe in that werewolves might be real. The Gonzales family carried a rare genetic condition that is known today as hypertrichosis, but it’s more common name is “werewolf syndrome”, so called because the people afflicted with it have hair growing over their entire faces, making them look exactly like pictures of werewolves that we have in pop culture and folklore. Here today to help us understand the history of the Gonzales family and what their lives were like living with this condition in the 16th century is our guest, and author of the book “The marvelous hairy girls : the Gonzales sisters and their worlds”, Merry Wiesner-Hanks.
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is a historian of early modern Europe, and also a world/global historian, whose work has been central to the integration of women, gender, and sexuality into both fields. Now Distinguished Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she is the long-time senior editor of the Sixteenth Century Journal, former editor of the Journal of Global History, and the editor-in-chief of the seven-volume Cambridge World History (2015). She is the author or editor of more than thirty books and many articles that have appeared in ten European and Asian languages, and are widely used in teaching around the world, from middle school through graduate school. She is currently editing, with Mathew Kuefler, the four-volume Cambridge World History of Sexualities and writing Women and the Reformations Around the World: Mothers, Migrants, Martyrs, Mystics, and Missionaries, which explores the lives, ideas, and actions of a wide range of women and will be published by Yale.
I’ll be asking Merry Wiesner-Hanks about:
- I am surprised that we have the 1595 portrait of Antonietta Gonzales, at all, because I was under the impression that portraits were reserved for the elite of Europe. I had expected that anyone suffering from a disease known as “werewolf syndrome” would have been immediately ostracized and seen as an outcast at best, which is obviously not how they saw the Gonzales family if they are painting expensive portraits of them. Merry, why do we have an expensive portrait of Antonietta Gonzales—what was the position in society of the Gonzales family?
- For someone living with hypertrichosis, do they only have excess hair on their face or are their entire bodies covered with excess hair?
- What was the medical response to this disease in the 16th century, were there any treatments?
- …and more!
Resources You Can Use to Learn More
Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park: Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, Zone Books, 2001. (This has the Fontana portrait of Antoinette Gonzales on the cover of the paperback.)
Surekha Davis, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps, and Monsters (Cambridge, 2017). Note from Cassidy: this book is amazing, but I suggest a library for this one. It’s $250 on amazon at the time of writing these notes. The other books on this list are in the $20-25 range, and the journal articles below were free at the time of writing it out.
Carolyn Murphy: Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth Century Bologna (Yale, 2003).
The Wild and Hairy Gonzales Family by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Other Resources Cassidy Thought You Might Enjoy
You’ll need to read French, or use a translator, but the University of Paris’ library, including a database of images, is available free online. (Including more images of 16th century people with hypertrichosis).
– On Origins of Beauty and the Beast:
- Harrison, “Cupid and Psyche”, Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome‘, (Link provided for reference, get thee to a library! This is a $300 set on Amazon)
- The Facetious Nights of Straparola by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, the 16th century version of this story. ($18 on Amazon)
The Gonzales Sisters Were Celebrated, Not Ostracized
I would have expected completely hairy people to be ostracized in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Merry explains that the word “superstitious” may not apply here, but if you look at how society treated witches, you’ll understand that there was a real grey area when it came to the response towards the unusual that makes the honoring treatment of the Gonzalez family surprising to me.
Merry explains that the condition, known as hypertrichosis, was extremely rare.
We now know it is a genetic condition, extremely rare (only 50 people we know of since the 16th century) causes excess hair. Only whole family that we know about that had it, and it’s not usually inheritable, so it’s doubly unsual for it to be affecting an entire family.
It seems that the Cabinet of Curiosities mentality of collecting weird things and putting them on display was not limited only to objects kept in a display cabinet. Among royals and courtiers at the royal court, it was the standard practice to gather up individuals who had unusual or strange traits as well.
It was common to gather a court entourage full of people who are odd, or have unique gifts, they would contortionists, or magicians, or have special features like being hairy, etc….so the family is part of the royal court in Italy, and the national ones in paris would have hundreds and hundreds of people in them as servants, officials, writers, and all kinds of things. Antoinetta Gonzalez painted because she’s part of the official entourage. They aren’t at a freak show anywhere (which did exist) but the father is serving the King’s bread, and while none of the girls have official positions, their brothers do, and they aren’t set off ina. Freak show but they are part of the royal court because they are unusually hairy.
16th Century Medical Response to Hypertrichosis
For someone living with hypertrichosis, they not only have excess hair on their face but according to the medical notes examining the Gonzalez family, someone with hypertrichosis grows excess hair over their entire bodies. You might expect the medical response to this disease to be extreme, or that the Gonzalez family might go to great lengths to hide or shave their excess hair. However, according to their potraits, it seems that we were confident about their appearance.
The doctors who saw them, and one of them was Felix…and he saw two of Antonietta’s older siblings, on their way from Catherine de Medici to Parma, the court where they spend most of their time, Felix saw the children on their travels to Parma. He examined them and he writes that he collected casebooks of many cases, transcribing them in order for how he thinks about certain conditions, the way he thinks about the Fonzalez children and where he puts them in his notebooks is “people who have unwanted hair” and that’s how he saw them, they just have unwanted hair. The description of the two children in his casebooks, is followed by a woman who has hair growing on his face, waist and forehead and he doesn’t want it, and there are some treatments prescribed to get rid of the hair but it wasn’t alarming to the medical community. Other people respond to them (non-medical people) see them as monstrous, and people saw them as “wild people” living out in the borders of Europe, or the mountains and they thought of them that way.
The Werewolf of Dole
As an example of how society did not always treat people who looked unusual as threats or symbols of evil among us, there was one man, presumed to have hypertrichosis, who was convicted of being a werewolf, but only after he confessed to murder.
Gilles Garnier was arrested and tried, before being executed for being a werewolf at the same time Pedro Gonzalez was at the royal court. It is important to note that “werewolf syndrome” wasn’t what this condition was called in the 16th century, but Gilles was said to be unusually hairy. During the time murders of children were taking place in France, Gilles Garnier was not immediately suspected. It was only later, after other circumstantial evidence followed by Gilles’ own confession, that he was convicted of being a werewolf. You can read more of his story here, but I think it’s important to our understanding of Pedro to be able to show that simply being someone with excess hair was not, at least in Shakespeare’s lifetime, anything to arouse suspicion in and of itself.
We do, however, see some medical doctors who use the word “monster” to describe an explanation for Antonietta Gonzalez’ appearance:
Aldrovandi is the other medical doctor who examines Antoinetta, but he doesn’t provide treatment suggestions for getting rid of it, but his notes assign them as a monster, things that are not quite human.
The Wild Man of The Canary Islands
In the painting of Antonietta (shown above), she is holding a letter that describes her father, Pedro as a “Wild man from the Canary Islands.” Merry explains for us that where Pedro and the Gonzales family came from gave hypertrichosis an association with something “foreign.”
Petrus is his Latin name, Pedro is Spanish, and he just happened to be born in the Canary Islands (And the text in the painting is one of the main ways we know where the Family was from) Canary Islands were off the coast of Africa and early colony of Spain, and originally settled from Africa and called Guanches, they were not originally hairy, because Petrus has a rare condition, and we don’t know if was early Spanish, a part of the Guanche, and later there is a story that circulates that he was a Guanche, and his sons use that to heighten their own exoticism. Guanches aren’t hairy, but he’s from a wild place. He was taken from the Canary islands probably by slave traders, taking them back to Spain and Portugal and salve markets, up to the French court, Catherine de Medici and Henry IV, and he lives at the French Court. We don’t know why he ended up there, but might have been because he was so different looking and he was an exotic thing.
Pedro and Catherine Gonzales were, by all accounts, happily married, having had 7 children, only 4 of which were afflicted with hypertrichosis, of course Antonietta was one of those. Merry, shares that Catherine de Medici may have played a role in how Pedro met Catherine Gonzales.
We know that Catherine de Medici arranged marriages between her servants, and it’s possible she arranged the marriage between Catherine and Pedro, but we don’t know for sure. We know they would have been married in a catholic ceremony, and we know her births were handled by a midwife, and that there were many practical reasons to recommend Petrus as a good match for Catherine.
The specific painting that Merry references here as an example of Pedro and Catherine Gonzalez’ marriage is found in her book, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds which you can find on amazon at this link. (At the time of writing this article the book is $22 USD new and $19 USD Used)
16th Century Beauty and the Beast
The story of “Beauty and the Beast,” that you may know from the famous Disney movie, was actually a famous story for Shakespeare’s lifetime as well. The original story can be dated all the way back to the 2nd century AD, with Italian versions of the fairy tale being written about by Giovanni Francesco Straparola in The Facetious Nights of Straparola around 1550. (Source: Harrison, “Cupid and Psyche”, Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome’,’ p. 339.)
There are some writers who suggest that the marriage of Catherine and Pedro Gonzales inspired the tale of Beauty and the Beast, but in fact, the couple were used as an archetype for the story. They were considered a “real life Beauty and the Beast” the way you might refer to a different couple as “a real life Barbie and Ken,” for example.
[Beauty and the Beast] is an old story that would have been told and it would have been known at the time. Educated people would have read it in fables, uneducated people would have known it from stories told from place to place, and we still have this story. The way that the paintings of the Gonzales family are painted as a way to highlight that he’s animal like and a beast and she’s a beauty, it’s also in these paintings, it’s like the Disney story where the Beast isn’t naked like an animal in the woods, he’s dressed in princely clothes and Pedro is usually dressed like a scholar and he’s taught Latin at the French court. So it’s done to highlight the story that already existed and fit the old story people [knew about.]”
The Woman Portrait Artist Lavinia Fontana
Q07: Going back to the portrait of Antonietta Gonzales, it was painted by Lavinia Fontana, which I had to go and look up because I read the name and thought it sounded feminine but I was doubtful that a 16th century portrait artist would be a woman, but Lavinia Fontana is indeed a woman—so there are two oddities in this portrait one for the sitter but another for the painter. Merry, was Lavinia selected for this job because she was a woman? Was it as rare as it seems for a woman to be a portrait artist in Shakespeare’s lifetime?
It is rare but we are finding more and more female artists as we go. 40 years ago we knew of only 3 female artist and we are finding more and more all the time, but there are still very few of them percentage wise. Particularly potrait artists you have to be wanted and selected and patronized personally so that’s very rare, but that said, most of the portrait artists are daughters of painters. She becomes a painter and becomes to be known for portraits of family groups and people with children. We don’t know how she comes to do the Gonzalez paintings, but she also does a pencil sketch (morgan library in New York), described as a portrait of Antoinetta, could have been chosen because hse was known to paint children and women sympathetically and well, and she was local—she was in bologna at the time. Knwon to Aldrovandi and medical doctor and he also knew her, so that ciould have been a connection there.
The Gonzalez Family Retires to The Italian Countryside
Q08: We know that the family portraits were painted several times, to be distributed around Europe as oddities or parts of the Cabinets of Curiosities we hear about from Shakespeare’s lifetime, but what ultimately happened to the Gonzales family? Did they continue to live at court and have their children passed around among noble families as curiosity cases?
Family ends up not in a court, by the time the brothers are middle age, they live in a small Italian village.
The paintings (watercolors, oil paintings, and sketches) circulate on their own, passing from the courts of Munich, Paris, etc, and their drawings end up in cabinets of curiosity, vienna, and end up in Ambrose Castle, Haspberg Castle in the Austrian Alps, Duke that lives tehre is really interested with a giant cabinet of curiosities and giants, dwarves, etc, he was really interesting in human oddities, so he has new portraits painted of them based on the other portraits, as well as some miniatures made, and they are in all these places.
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!