How many women out there have felt that they were too hairy to exist in a smooth-skinned world of constant razor advertisements? As in, the sight of your leg hair has caused you great dismay and discomfort? Imagine that everyday, but times a million and on your face.
This is what life was like for Antonietta Gonzalez and her hairy sisters, who stunned and puzzled 16th century observers with their rare and unique genetic condition: hypertrichosis, or werewolf syndrome. An excessive growth of hair about the face and body, of which only 50 congenital cases have been recorded since the Middle Ages.
Little Antonietta was the daughter of Petrus Gonsalvus, a Spaniard from the Canary Islands who also had the same condition. He did not have it any easier than his children would, and was shuffled around Europe by noblemen who were all scrambling to gawk at the man’s hairy condition in morbid fascination.
This was a man who dressed in fine robes, was educated, cultured, spoke fluent Latin, and kept in the courts of royalty. In his 30s, Catherine de Medici ordered Petrus to marry one of her servant girls, also named Catherine. The girl did not know who she was marrying until she reached the altar. She must have been startled, but went along with it as she had no choice.
Luckily for Petrus, he had found a loving and devoted wife who adored her wolf-husband with much care, and stayed with him for all her life. Catherine could have left him after the marriage, but chose not to, and stood proudly by him in portraits of the couple. Rather cruelly, their pairing went on to inspire the tale of Beauty and the Beast. Talk about mean gossip.
They went on to have seven children, four affected with hypertrichosis. Antonietta became the most famous girl in the family after talented artist Lavinia Fontana painted a striking portrait of her.
In 1594, physician Ulisse Aldrovandi wrote that:
“The girl’s face was entirely hairy on the front, except for the nostrils and her lips around the mouth. The hairs on her forehead were longer and rougher in comparison with those which covered her cheeks, although these are softer to touch than the rest of her body, and she was hairy on the foremost part of her back, and bristling with yellow hair up to the beginning of her loins.”
From a very young age, Petrus’ children were considered rare oddities which the people around them tried to observe, analyze and explain away. Was the family’s appearance an act of God? Were they werewolves? Were they man or beast?
In the modern era, we can easily grasp that they were merely just excessively hairy Spaniards. But in Antonietta’s time, and especially applicable to her and her sisters, people had a hard time reconciling their hairiness to their humanity and femininity.
In portraits of Antonietta, she is doll-like and petite, clearly just a wide-eyed little girl who is amused that her picture is being painted. Lavinia Fontana herself was also a rarity in her time, as one of the only respected and revered female painters of the Renaissance era. Could it have been a cute moment?
It wasn’t cute for long, because to nobles in France and Italy, her portraits were strange collector’s items, to be displayed and scrutinized on a prominent mantel. A conversation piece to be dissected with curious visitors.
Sadly, the Gonzalez family’s life becomes a mystery in the 17th century, but it was of their own choosing. They settled in rural Italy to escape the circus that constantly followed them around Europe. The little knowledge that remains of them is fuzzy.
Antonietta’s sister Maddalena married and had children, one of which was affected with the same condition. Her sister Francesca remained unmarried. And depressingly, little Antonietta was said to have died young.
One wonders what Antonietta felt as her pictures were being painted and then spread across Italy. Did she mingle with other girls her age? Was she ever courted by a suitor like her sister Maddalena? We have no window into her mind. But we do have a window into her soul, in Fontana’s immortal portrait of her.