Beyond the bald facts of a French royal court 'freak' and his hirsute daughters

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: PATRICK SKENE CATLINGreviews The Marvelous Hairy Girlsby Merry Wiesner-Hanks Yale University Press 248pp, £18.99

HENRY II of France must have been delighted in 1547 when a well-wisher presented him with a boy from Tenerife afflicted with the rare mutation hypertrichosis universalis, which may be translated as “very hairy all over”.

A 16th-century monarch liked to have among his courtiers a really unusual freak of nature. Having somebody abnormal in one’s court made one feel superior, and dwarfs were rather commonplace.

The Canaries were islands of legendary exoticism when hairy young Petrus Gonzales was collected there as a human souvenir of westward exploration and taken to France. The contrast between the boy’s simple birthplace and the sophisticated elegance of the Parisian court might have been overwhelming, but Petrus was intelligent and sufficiently kindly treated to adjust well. His extraordinary hairiness made him a valued exhibit, enhanced by ornate, formal costumes, and he was taught to speak Latin, the language of upperclass society and the church.

The queen of France, Catherine de Medici, presumably helped to procure a woman suitable to become Petrus’s wife. She too was named Catherine and had only the normal amount of hair.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks, distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, who writes with academic objectivity throughout almost all her book, allows herself to describe Catherine Gonzales as “lovely” and calls the marriage a Beauty and the Beast romance.

“Petrus would never turn into a handsome prince, of course,” she acknowledges, “but he was connected to princes and educated in a princely fashion, qualities in a husband that any woman would have valued.”

The young couple were prolific and Petrus’s mutant genetic influence was potent, producing three excessively hairy daughters, Maddalena, Francesca and Antonietta, and two excessively hairy sons, Enrico and Orazio, as well as a third son, Paolo, of normal hairiness, and a fourth, Ercole, who died so soon after birth no hairiness record was kept.

The Gonzales family’s patrons commissioned portraits, in oils and other media, of Petrus and his children, making it possible for me to understand why unsympathetic voyeurs compared them with monkeys. Several of the portraits are shown in this book. The most flattering of them, a portrait of Antonietta painted by Lavinia Fontana in the 1590s, adorns the jacket. Though she is portrayed with pretty rosebud lips and a fine enough pink nose, she seems to be gazing from the mask of an animal. In their time, “the marvellous hairy girls” were called “monsters, marvels, beasts”.

Members of the Gonzales family, treated like their patrons’ property, were passed as curios from aristocrat to aristocrat.

However, a final, independent home was established in Capodimonte, a small village in Italy. Sources of information about the family were limited.

The author therefore enlarged her scope, using them as a lens to focus all sorts of European beliefs and opinions during the Renaissance, from midwifery to religion.

In this work, Wiesner-Hanks’s approach to history is anthropological rather than political, except in her account of rivalry between Catholics and Calvinists.


Patrick Skene Catling is a novelist