Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Court dwarfs

I hadn't put 2 and 2 together. I knew that many monarchs enjoyed the company of dwarfs in their courts, and I knew that artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) was a favorite of Spain's King Philip IV (1605-1665). But I didn't realize that Velázquez is as well-known for his sensitive portraits of those dwarfs as he is for his portraits of the royal family.

1st image) Don Diego de Acedo ("El Primo")
, c. 1645. This dwarf boasted of being related to the painter. Depicted in a seated position and slightly from below gives Don Diego a dignity that the book - the sign of a gentleman and a scholar - also conveys. Though most viewers at the time would have doubted that he could read and write, he did in fact have administrative duties at the court.

2nd image) Sebastián de Morra, c. 1645. This portrait is considered one of the most penetrating character studies ever made by Velázquez. Pictured full-figure, but seated on the floor with his legs stretched out in front of him, makes Don Sebastián look like a marionette and makes his sumptuous clothing look clown-like. This mirrors his powerlessness in the eyes of the king, but his own penetrating gaze questions this treatment and the lack of a smile indicates his refusal to play along. "He wears a fine red robe decorated in gold, with a lace collar, and his beard and moustache are fashionably primped. If this appearance of courtly sophistication is at odds with his short stumpy legs and the clog-like soles of his shoes, his dark, intelligent, angry eyes dare us to take this as comic, to see him as a freak. He is a man."

3rd image) Don Antonio el Inglés, c. 1640/2. While court dwarfs were often responsible for the care of the animals, the inclusion of the dog in Don Antonio's portrait also serves to exaggerate his diminutive size and to imply that he was only a step above the animal in status.

4th image) Francisco Lezcano, "El Niño de Vallecas," 1643/5. Francisco was a 15-year-old hydrocephalic dwarf with learning disabilities. His large features make him almost monumental within the tight frame of the painting that suggests his circumscribed world.

5th image) Don Juan Calabazas, "Calabacillas," 1637/9. The lighting and Don Juan's expression may indicate that "Bizco," as this dwarf was also known, had a visual impairment.

Court dwarfs were loved, but often treated badly. Their grandiose names were a form of mockery. They often functioned as court jesters in exchange for their room and board. "Because they were such an integral part of imperial activities — serving, entertaining, and present at royal celebrations — they are almost never depicted as autonomous beings; rather, they are shown as decorative elements situated at the fringes of the lives of others more important than themselves." King Philip surrounded himself with these portraits of dwarfs at his hunting lodge, Torre de la Parada, when he was away from the 110 dwarfs he retained at his palace. Most of the paintings now hang in the Prado in Madrid.


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  2. Are you certain of the diagnosis of Francisco Lezcano?

    I think it is Lezcano in this portrait of the young prince Baltasar even though no name is given:

    Supposedly King Philip IV had 110 dwarfs in his court and I have read accounts that differ as to the king's attitude about the dwarfs. Whatever Philip may have felt, I think Velazquez is not meant to show them in a bad light, but just another interesting character study.

  3. Also, Don Juan Calabazas (pumpkins) was not technically a dwarf even though he appears in the Palace Archive list of "Rogues and Dwarves."

    His proportions are normal although he is clearly cross-eyed (convergent strabismus). I just found this in a Spanish article in PDF form by a Physician who apparently studied these paintings extensively. He apparently knows their belongings and their wages. You can copy & paste sections into google translate or I can try if you have questions.

    Here's a portrait of a much younger "calabacillas" by Velazquez which I think is currently in a Cleveland Museum:,_Calabacillas),_possibly_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez.jpg


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