At the Château de Blois, a mysterious painting representing a little girl with a hairy face intrigues visitors…

In the bedroom where Catherine de Medici passed away

At the Château de Blois, a mysterious painting sits in the Queen’s bedroom, where Catherine de Medici passed away: the portrait of a funny little princess, whose face appears covered with a strange coat. Incredible but true, the painting does not represent a fairy tale creature but a real little girl from the Renaissance, whose fascinating story is here… This little girl, with the strange hairy face, was suffering from a genetic disease called hypertrichosis resulting in abnormal hair growth, just like her father, Pedro Gonsalvus. At the time of the cabinets of curiosities constituted by the princes, this type of phenomenon fascinated, and reflected the attraction for extraordinary phenomena. This is why she was invited to the courts of Europe.

Château de Blois
Copyright Château de Blois

An interest in strange objects and natural curosities

The story of this Gonsalvus family is part of the literary tradition of the wild man, which we find in the 18th century, in the tale Beauty and the Beast. One of the representations of the father of Antonietta Gonsalvus, moreover, served as a model to make the mask of Jean Marais in the film by Jean Cocteau, in 1946. Painted by Lavinia Fontana in 1594, the portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus is today in the Museum of Fine Arts, included in the Château de Blois. At the end of the 16th century, it adorned the library of the Grand Duke Ferdinand of Gonzaga in Mantua, in the huge castle owned by this family that reigned over the city. The Grand Duke Ferdinand, like many aristocrats of this Renaissance period, was an avid collector of natural curiosities and strange objects. This interest in mirabilia (extraordinary beings and things) extended to all the courts of Europe.

Hairy « monsters » were exhibited in circuses

A painting, representing four members of the Gonsalvus family, also shaggy, was offered to Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol who decorated a wall of the kunstkammer (“chamber of arts”, cabinet of curiosities) of his summer palace with it. ‘Ambras (south of Innsbruck). It is for this reason that the hirsutism suffered by the Gonsalvus family was called until the end of the 19th century the “Ambras syndrome”. In 1872, Emperor Franz Joseph (Elisabeth’s husband, Sissi) donated copies of these portraits to the dermatological clinic in Vienna. It was at this time that the « Ambras syndrome » became hypertrichosis, a pathology subject of research and medical speculation, while hairy « monsters » were exhibited in circuses and fairs. We definitely no longer observed hairy people with the curious and sympathetic gaze of Renaissance men. What strikes, when one observes the painting of Lavinia Fontana, is the benevolent point of view of the portrait painter. Antonietta’s face is harmonious; yet this one is covered with hair, facial hair, here overabundant, being a conventional trait of masculinity; the young girl seems perfectly inserted into the high culture of her time : she is dressed in a beautiful dress and her hair is elegant in the fashion of the court of Florence; she is holding a letter that she wrote and where she traces her origins.

Wonderful ornaments of the courts

The destiny of the other members of his family testifies to the interest that was then given to these « wonderful ornaments of the courts« . Petrus (Pedro), Antonietta’s father, was a Guanche native of the Canary Islands, whose Spaniards, who had just conquered the archipelago, had donated to Henry II who reigned from 1547 to 1559 and who maintained an extravagant court of some 10,000 people. At court, the status of Petrus was not devalued: he was educated in the humanities, learned Latin, became assistant bread-bearer to His Majesty; he married Catherine Raffelin, a beardless bourgeoise; from their union were born six children, one who died in infancy, three hairy daughters, including Antonietta, two sons, one also hairy, the other with smooth skin.

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