To Hairiness!

Cathy Gere

  • The Marvellous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
    Yale, 248 pp, £18.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12733 1

The first culture to be extinguished as a result of European imperialism was that of the Guanches, the light-skinned indigenous population of the Canary Islands. In 1402, the Kingdom of Castile sent a small band of mercenaries to the island of Lanzarote. They built a fortress, captured the ruler of one of the smaller islands and forced a military surrender, followed by Christian baptism for the subjugated population. After this smooth beginning, things became more difficult for the Spanish, and it took them more than 90 years to conquer all seven islands. Despite being armed only with javelins and rocks, the Guanches’ knowledge of the mountainous terrain and their determination to hang onto their land and way of life made them formidable opponents. Eventually the plague achieved what horses, cannon, armour and muskets could not, and on Christmas Day 1495 the last of the Guanches surrendered on Tenerife, where resistance had been fiercest. The remaining insurgents were hunted down from the hills, their traditional dress was outlawed and they were sold as slaves or put to work on one of the new sugar plantations. In the slave markets of Cadiz and Seville the Guanches were prized for their strength and agility, and reports of their doomed courage in battles against the Europeans made them ideal candidates for the part of the first savages to be ennobled by their defeat.

In 1547, a young boy from Tenerife was shipped to Paris by the Spanish and given to the French court as a present. His name was Petrus Gonzales, and to the exoticism of his place of origin was added a hereditary condition that made him a natural curiosity. Gonzales was hairy. Not just his body, but his face too was covered in hair, leaving only his eyes, mouth and nostrils visible. Here was a wild boy from the conquered islands who really looked the part. Crucially for his career at court, Gonzales’s facial hair was the wildest thing about him. Attractive, blond, Spanish-speaking and sweet-smelling, he was a luxury item presented to Henri II as a favour-currying gift. He was given a minor position in the elaborate hierarchy of servants who supplied the king with his every need. Later on he married a woman who was reputed to be a soft-skinned beauty, and the couple had a number of children, most of them hairy like their father. Among the hirsute offspring were three girls: Maddalena, Francesca and Antonietta.

As Merry Wiesner-Hanks admits in the preface of The Marvellous Hairy Girls, everything that is known about the Gonzales family can be told in a few pages, and so most of her book consists of lengthy disquisitions on such matters as Spanish conquests, the world of the court, marriage, childbirth, family life, religion and early modern science. The material is fascinating, but the Gonzaleses tend to get lost in the mix, their story told out of chronological order in fragments that serve only to introduce Wiesner-Hanks’s themes. Given the amount of detective work involved in locating all the evidence about the family, it seems a pity to leave it to the reader to assemble the jigsaw puzzle.

Fascination with the unclipped and untamed had a long history in early modern Europe. A shaggy, club-wielding wild man clothed in animal skins was a stock figure at village festivals and city carnivals; a source of titillation and fear. Bearded witches might be cooking up their brews in the next village, while werewolves haunted the woods and monkey women roamed distant lands. After the conquest of the Canaries, the connotations of hairiness became more positive, as near-naked, hairy muscle men came to represent strength, naturalness and freedom, and were incorporated into the coat of arms of more than 200 families. In Basel, a men’s club called Zur Haaren – ‘To Hairiness!’ – commissioned a hairy man emblem from Holbein the Younger.

Various 16th-century clerics and medics railed against shaving, with one English physician lamenting the ‘filthy Fineness and loathesome Loveliness’ of the new urban fop. The same author believed unusually hirsute females to be monsters, but they weren’t always objects of derision and fear. The patron saint of hairy ladies was Mary Magdalene, whose legend had by this time accrued much new detail, including an episode of penitent cave-dwelling during which her already prodigious head of hair grew to cover her whole body. Women who wanted to be rid of their husbands prayed to St Uncumber, who had beseeched God to help her avoid an arranged marriage and was blessed with a magnificent beard that sent her betrothed packing. Gorgeous wild women, with smooth faces, furry bodies and Farrah Fawcett curls, began to appear on 16th-century stained glass windows and drinking cups as emblems of fecundity, protection and strength.

Into this fad for furry things burst Petrus Gonzales. It is not clear whether he was actually a Guanche. He may have been the son of Spanish settlers, or of mixed ancestry, but his association with the vanquished natives of the Canaries was certainly part of his exotic appeal. He was said to be about ten years old when he arrived at the court of the recently crowned Henri II, ‘completely hairy on his face … exactly like the paintings of wild men of the woods’. The hair was fine and blond like sable fur, and Gonzales was judged ‘very attractive’. The same commentator also recorded that the hair smelled good, and that the boy ‘speaks Spanish and is dressed like an ordinary person’.

Henri II’s court was one of the most extravagant in Europe, populated by up to 10,000 people. The Queen Consort, Catherine de Medici, kept a parallel household of dwarves, who would act out miniature versions of royal rituals to amuse her courtiers, while at the same time reminding them of their own diminutive status. Gonzales, it seems, had no difficulty finding a place in this glittering throng, assuming a role somewhere between courtier, curiosity and servant. Henri decreed that the boy should be educated in the humanities, and he was given instruction in Latin. The king’s motives are obscure, but perhaps he relished the contrast between the beastliness of the child’s appearance and the elegance of his linguistic abilities, making of him something akin to a dwarf dressed in brocade or a dog dancing on its hind legs. When Gonzales was in his teens, he became assistant bearer of the king’s bread, a role that brought him enviably close to the royal presence.

Gonzales would have been sent to the French court because of its well-known fondness for the exotic. Whenever the royal entourage swept into a new city, local dignitaries strained to outdo one another: enchanted castles, goddesses, artificial whales, fairies, giants or mythological heroes might be produced. In 1550, not long after the Portuguese established Salvador, the first colonial capital of Brazil, the town of Rouen welcomed the royals with an ersatz Brazilian village, complete with parrots, trees, monkeys, hammocks and 50 nearly naked captives – men and women – who staged a battle with clubs and arrows. In 1564 (after the deaths of Henri and of their eldest son, Francis II), Catherine took to the road for two years with her younger son, Charles IX, accompanied by a yapping, yowling bestiary, including monkeys on horseback, bears and lions, as well as the usual birds and dogs. They were greeted in Bordeaux by a parade of vanquished nations, featuring ‘Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Egyptians, Ceylonese, Americans, Indians, Canary Islanders, savages, Brazilians, Moors and Utopians’. We know regrettably little about the last of these, but perhaps the inclusion of Utopia indicates the unease the victors felt about the fate of the vanquished.

Gonzales disappears from the historical record for a spell after his appointment as assistant bread-bearer, but he survived one of the bloodiest periods of French history to reappear in his forties as a married man with children. In about 1580, a Bavarian nobleman commissioned portraits of Gonzales and his family as gifts for a powerful relative: four lifesize paintings, each devoted to a single figure, depicting Gonzales as well as his pretty, smooth-skinned wife and two of their children, Maddalena and Enrico, both hairy. The artist (his name deservedly forgotten) has rendered the Gonzaleses as lugubrious Renaissance teddybears. Petrus, soberly dressed in a black scholar’s robe, looks gloomily out at the viewer, the long hair of his face draped over a white ruff, while behind him looms the entrance to a cave, a reference to the traditional dwellings of the Guanches. Maddalena – about seven or eight – wears a gold brocade gown worthy of a princess, encrusted with pearls and precious stones, a large jewelled cross on the bodice, a stiff lacy ruff encircling her furry throat, and another dark cave behind her. Petrus’s two-year-old son Enrico is stuffed into a miniature version of his father’s tabard. All three stare directly and rather unhappily from the canvas, as if beseeching the artist to free them from their uncomfortable predicament. By contrast, Petrus’s unhairy wife, Catherine, is shown standing at a table, in plain middle-class attire, looking away to her right, a faint smile on her pale face.

These are the most famous images of the Gonzales family. The Bavarian duke who commissioned them gave them to his powerful uncle, Ferdinand II, archduke of Tyrol, who hung them on the walls of his summer palace, Schloss Ambras, from which is derived the name (Ambras syndrome) for the condition of excessive hairiness. They were much copied, the last time in 1872, when the Austrian emperor had versions made for the dermatological clinic in Vienna whose physicians gave the syndrome its Latin name, hypertrichosis universalis. There have been fewer than 50 reported cases in the four centuries since the Gonzales portraits were made.

Soon after their first brush with fame, the Gonzales family found themselves under the care of new patrons. Around 1590, they made a slow journey to the northern Italian city of Parma, where they were absorbed into the retinue of the powerful Farnese family. Catherine and Petrus had four more surviving children: two hairy girls and two boys, one hairy, one smooth-skinned. The hairy ones were handed from one member of the Farnese family to another, circulating as part of the gift economy of this clan of cardinals, generals and dukes. Eventually all the surviving Gonzaleses converged in the village of Capodimonte, north of Rome, where they lived out their lives, still dependent on Farnese patronage, but no longer treated as possessions or playthings.

When the Gonzales family arrived in Italy, the business of portraying them fell to more skilful artists. Around the turn of the 17th century, Enrico, the eldest brother, received the full Baroque treatment from Agostino Carracci, who placed him at the centre of a delirious tumult of Farnese exotica. Flanked by ‘Crazy Peter’ and ‘the Dwarf Amon’, Enrico feeds cherries to an enormous parrot. A monkey perches on his shoulder and another teases the puppy on his lap. Gone is the formal dress and any suggestion of Christian piety: he sports the goatskin cape of his putative Guanche ancestors, and the idealised rendering of his nearly naked body links him to the pagan gods and heroes beloved of Carracci and his patrons. The campness of the image is considerably increased by the fact that his face is hairy but his sculpted body is rendered more or less smooth-skinned.

Enrico’s younger sibling, Orazio, was also portrayed in the traditional Guanche goatskin cape, in an effigy engraving commissioned by a fellow courtier, who is described in the inscription as ‘joined in love’ with the deceased. Orazio is shown with silky facial ringlets and a wistful pout – an adorable, sulky boy undergoing transformation into a cocker spaniel after rejecting the advances of a vengeful Olympian. Orazio, though, married a village girl and had children, while Enrico went to the altar no fewer than four times, the last three marriages to much younger women. Adding up various scraps of evidence – the Italian depictions of the two boys, the description of their father as attractive and fragrant and the romantic record of all three – one might be forgiven for speculating that the male members of the Gonzales family had sufficient sexual charisma to wear their tresses with some insouciance.

Charming or not, the hairy Gonzaleses were human artefacts, bought, exchanged, bestowed and bequeathed as part of a 16th-century epidemic of collecting that spread across Europe as the age of exploration pushed out the edges of the known world. One of the best-known collectors of the day was Ulisse Aldrovandi, a scholar of noble extraction, whose endless curiosity was rewarded by several months of house arrest in Rome on heresy charges. He weathered this setback and went on to teach logic and philosophy at the University of Bologna, where he amassed more than 18,000 objects. Such was his passion for taxonomy that he even catalogued the visitors to this prodigious assemblage, grouping them according to social standing and geographic origins. In 1594 or thereabouts, Aldrovandi examined two of the Gonzales family when they passed through Bologna, commenting that the girl was ‘bristling with yellow hair up to the beginning of her loins’. Despite this direct contact with them, he had a frustrating lack of interest in the details of their story. In his collection were seven portraits of various hairy Gonzaleses, none taken from life, all copies of copies, wreathed in anecdotes about anecdotes.

Presenting a refreshing contrast to the collector’s vagueness are the observations of another scholar who examined the Gonzales family at around the same time. Felix Platter’s steep ascent from shepherd’s grandson to city physician attests to the surprisingly well-oiled machinery for social mobility in 16th-century Switzerland. At medical school his idea of student high jinks was to rob a graveyard and dissect the body. With the dispassion of the anatomically trained, he examined Petrus, Catherine and two of their children, noting, as Aldrovandi had, that the little girl was exceedingly hairy along her spine. These observations are followed by a brilliant inversion of the usual order of curiosities and wonders: ‘Since we have hair in each pore of the body,’ Platter remarks, ‘it’s no wonder that in some people, as in many animals, their hair is longer and continuously grows, like fingernails. It is strange, instead, that in some parts where it grows, it maintains the same length, like in the eyebrows, while in other parts it is so much shorter that it is barely visible.’ It is we – with our tame eyebrows and smooth cheeks – who are the freaks, while the Gonzales family fit more snugly into the order of nature.

Aldrovandi and Platter both made sure to examine female members of the family, but in general there is little information about the lives of the hairy girls. Wiesner-Hanks uses this inconvenient silence to argue that ‘even among marvels the lives of women and men were very different,’ and speculates about how much more monstrous the daughters must have seemed than the sons. Hard not to think that her project has been skewed in order to attract readers with a titillating title, ‘hairy girls’ being unarguably more eye-catching than ‘hairy persons’ in our depilatory age. We learn in the preface that Enrico left a considerable paper trail, including letters and business records, which surely could illuminate many aspects of his ‘varied and wondrous’ times. Yet we are treated merely to snippets of this information, lest he outshine his sisters, who peek out from the darkness of history with a modesty that may befit their sex but that surely disqualifies them as the protagonists in their family’s story.