Individuals of restricted height have been represented in art forms practiced throughout the Italian Peninsula since antiquity. The manner in which they were depicted however, is a stark reminder that the little people of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were considered curiosities, something other than the norm, and were often exploited simply because of their lack of stature. For example, Braccio di Bartolo (shown above), who became court dwarf to Gran Duke Cosimo I, was ironically given the name Nano Morgante: the title being derived from a fictional giant found in Luigi Pulci’s poem entitled Il Morgante.
Given that most of the fashionable courts of Europe would have sourced one or more dwarves and employed them as servants and/or fools, Cosimo was not exceptional in acquiring the services of a person of restricted height. Morgante was certainly objectified by his employer as his naked body was recorded by the artist, Agnolo Bronzino in 1552 and again later, by the sculptor, Valerio Cioli. Cosimo however, was apparently fond of Morgante as he stated that he was “the dwarf of our ducal palace and our most beloved servant.”
While there was a measure of companionship between servant and master (or mistress), there was certainly a strict hierarchy that governed court circles. Dwarves, being perceived as fashionable human curiosities, were both literally and metaphorically lower than those that they served. Consequently, these little people of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were deemed as requiring patronage and protection – even if that aegis came from a highborn child who in turn, suffered from his own physical disabilities. For instance, the portrait shown below depicts Charles Emmanuel of Savoy placing a protective hand onto the head of his dwarf. In 1572, the approximate date that the image was painted, Charles would have been around ten years old.
If paintings depicting courtly life impress upon the twenty-first century viewer the status of little people within the aforementioned milieu, Renaissance and Baroque paintings that show representations of historical, biblical or mythical events leave us with no doubt to where dwarves stood in the social hierarchy. Shown in the background or on the periphery of great events, dwarves are reduced to artistic contrivances: visual tools so that the viewer can judge the scale of man compared to animal and exotic repoussoir devices to guide the spectator’s eye deeper into the artwork.
Images: Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Nano Morgante, 1552, oil on wood, Galleria degli Uffizzi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Cioli Valerio, Fountain of Bacchio, 1561 – 1568, marble, Boboli Gardens, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Web Gallery of Art.
Andrea Mantegna, The Court of Mantua, 1474, fresco, Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua. Wikimedia Commons.
Giacomo Vighi, Portrait of Charles Emmanuel of Savoy with Dwarf, 1572, oil on canvas, Galleria Sabauda, Turin. Wikimedia Commons.
Vittore Carpaccio, Arrival of the English Ambassadors (detail), 1495 – 1500, tempera on canvas, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.
Paolo Veronese, The Family of Darius Before Alexander (detail), 1565 – 1570, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Domenichino Zampieri and assistants, Apollo Killing the Cyclops, 1616-1618, fresco transferred to canvas and mounted on board, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi, Adoration of the Kings, c.1470, tempera on wood, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Further Reading: Betty M. Adelson, The Lives of Dwarves: Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation, Rutgers University Press, London, 2005.
Robin O’Brien, “Grotesque Bodies, Princely Delight: Dwarfs in Italian Renaissance Court Imagery.” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, vol. 1, no. 2, 2012, pp. 252-288.
Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.