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Ulisse Aldrovandi is considered by many scientists, including Carl Linnaeus, the man who formalized the modern system of naming animals, to be the father of natural history studies. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, until his death in 1605, Aldrovandi collected a vast amount of specimens for his cabinet of curiosities, gathering over 7000 artifacts, organizing multiple expeditions to collect plants, and illustrating thousands of bizarre natural history phenomenon into at least 12 publications, some of which were compiled posthumously. Today, Aldrovandi’s work is preserved at the University of Bologna. However, in 2020, one painting was discovered that claims to be a lost Aldrovandi painting of a young girl that suffered from hypertrichosis, a condition that covers the body in excess hair. We have talked about this girl, Antoinetta Gonzales, on our show previously. That episode, we mentioned that paintings of the Gonzales family were often copied and distributed around Europe for inclusions in cabinets of curiosities, like the one that Aldrovandi compiled in Italy. Today, our guest, Daniel Dawson-Gordon, is here to talk about one such painting that belonged to Ulisse Aldrovandi, who at the time was one of the highest ranking members of Italian society. Daniel is here to share about Aldrovandi’s work, the painting of Antoinetta Gonzales, and the story of how it was discovered beneath another a famous art painting that been painted over the original of Antionetta.  

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Daniel Dawson Gordon is the owner of Norfolk Antique & Reclamation Center where he deals in a wide range of reclaimed materials from architectural structures to select fine objects. He is also the proprietor at “The Britannia Handmade Brick Company” that produces and sells traditional handmade bricks. Daniel has featured in few antique programs on national television in the UK and a full production four episode series about Daniel’s work called “the Antiques Yard” was featured on the channel more4 in the UK.  

I’ll be asking Daniel Dawson Gordon about:

  • Did Aldrovandi create the first natural history museum?
  • What made you suspicious that there might be another painting underneath the top painting? What methods did you use to  discover that there was an additional painting underneath the Madonna and child painting?
  • Who was the artist that painted each of the paintings? Is it the same person that painted both?
  • …and more!

1.The Marvelous hairy girls by Merry Weisner-Hanks.

2.Possessing nature by Paula Findlen

3. Ulissis Aldrovandi … Monstrorum Historia  

Aldrovandi’s Lost Painting 

Daniel’s Documentary on the discovery of his painting can be found here.

This is the painting Daniel Dawson Gordon bought for Norfolk Reclamation, not knowing what was underneath. Image Source: Daniel Dawson Gordon provided this image to That Shakespeare Life. Used with permission.
This is the xray image of the Aldrovandi-owned portrait of Antoinetta Gonzales that is hidden beneath the Madonna and Child portrait shown to the left. Image Source: Daniel Dawson Gordon provided this image to That Shakespeare Life. Used with permission.

Ulisse Aldrovandi is credited with starting the first natural history museum

While Daniel points out that others before him likely had what we would call a natural history museum, Aldrovandi started a trend that continued for centuries afterwards.

Ulysse Aldrovandi’s cover page of Ornithologiae | 1599 | Public Domain | Source

His collection was vast, and celebrated.

His collection went to the state, held in Bologna, the Museum, he has over 18,000 artifacts left, separate from the 7000 specimens of plants and botanicals that have been dried and sealed in books and scripts. On from that, he was known to create the first botanical garden.

You can see Aldrovandi’s collection online at the University of Bologna here.

Aldrovandi was known for collecting specimens of various curiosities and natural wonders. Of particular interest to Aldrovandi was collecting what he called “monsters.”

He wrote about these people in his book, Monstrorum historia.

Monstrorum historia (Crusca) | Photo taken by Sailko | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. | Source

Aldrovandi commissions portrait of Antonietta Gonzales

As we have talked about recently on our show, with guest Merry Weisner-Hanks for an episode on the Gonzales sisters, the Gonzalez family suffered from hypertrichosis, a condition that left them covered in hair all over their bodies. As a result, the Gonzales sisters, in particular, were seen as a side show, a curiosity, and were kept as members of the royal court because of their unique attributes.

Portraits of the Gonzales sisters, and Antonietta in particular, were circulated around Europe. While the family travelled around for many years on display for their condition, after they retired to the country, the portraits of them remained in popular demand.

Aldrovandi was one such person who wanted a portrait of Antoinetta Gonzales for his curiosity collection, so he commissioned an artist to make him a replica of one of the most famous paintings in Europe.

Unknown date, portrait of Ulisse Aldrovandi, by Author
Agostino Carracci  (1557–1602) | Public Domain | Source

Finding That Painting Accidentally

As an antiques dealer, Daniel routinely comes across paintings and furniture of value that he then resells. He never expected to uncover a lost painting commissioned by Aldrovandi. One day, his friend showed up with a delivery of antiques, inside which is a painting that caught Daniel’s eye. The original painting was done of a Madonna and Child, but after suspecting there might be something underneath the outer painting, Daniel recruited his friend to xray the painting. Xrays indeed revealed a hidden Aldrovandi portrait beneath the Madonna and Child. After further investigation, it turns out that the painting is not only a famous one, but it was a painting considered lost from Aldrovandi’s collection until now.

This is the source painting of Antoinetta Gonzales that the artist copied for Aldrovandi in the painting Daniel Dawson Gordon now owns. | Find out more on the history of this painting with our guest, Merry Weisner-Hanks. | Portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus (1593), daughter of Predro Gonsalvus (“The Hairy Man”), by Lavinia Fontana. The paper that Atonietta is holding describes Pedro as being a hairy man from the Canary Islands. Public Domain. Source

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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!