Wednesday, June 14, 2017

selfies and werewolves

I'm not a fan of selfie culture. I find it strange and narcissistic.

Even before there was the camera, people felt the urge to have artists create images in their likeness. The wealthy had artists create portraits in watercolor, oil, and even frescoes. Often these artists would paint more expensive clothes or even change history by adding false imagery at the request of their patron. In the time of antiquity, people had statues and mosaics made to display their likeness. So, this practice is not a new habit of ours.

Oddly, there is one painting that always comes to my mind when thinking of humanity's constant need to create these kinds of displays. The painting I'm talking about was of a man who suffered with hypertrichosis named Pedro Gonzalez (Petrus Gonsalvus).

Petrus Gonsalvus
Photo Courtsey: wikipedia.com


The story of  Pedro Gonzalez, is a strange one. Pedro Gonzalez was born in 1556 in the Canary islands (a group of islands off the coast of Spain). At birth, he was a source of local curiosity and soon drew the attention of  the aristocracy.

During the 16th century, all kinds of people were seen as oddities were traded between powerful or wealthy families. So, Pedro was taken from his home and given as a gift to King Henri II.

King Henri II decided to give Pedro a Latin name (Petrus Gonsalvus) and ordered Pedro to receive an education. The King did this as a sort of entertainment; he wanted to watch the "savage" fail. Fortunately for Pedro, his education was a success.

Pedro became fluent in multiple languages. He mastered the art of the nobleman's etiquette. He even became essential for receiving foreign dignitaries and ambassadors, gaining favoritism from the King.

When King Henri II died his wife, Catherine de Medici, took power as regent. She decided that Pedro should be married in hopes of producing more "wild children" like himself. Catherine became a matchmaker and found a woman (ironically also named Catherine) for him to marry. This new Catherine was a French woman, rumored to be a great beauty.

Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus
Photo Courtesy: davonnajuroe.com
Petrus and Catherine met for the first time on their wedding day and though it might not have been love at first sight, Catherine gave him many children (seven in total and four of their children inherited their father's hypertrichosis).

In 1581, he and his family were sent on a never ending tour of the courts. Where many paintings and studies were done on him and his children. This fascination escalated and soon they settled under the ownership of Duke Ranuccio Farnese, who tragically sent away Pedro's affected children as gifts.

Petrus's Daughter Antonietta Gonsalvus
Photos Courtesy: wikiart.org and journals.openedition.org


I don't know why I connect this strange story of Petrus and his family to the current selfie culture, but I do. Somehow, I think we have become voyeurs in each others lives. The more bizarre or unique the narrative,  the more interested we become. 

We all buy into the freak-show or spectacle of life. I wonder how healthy that is? And I wonder who are the Petrus's of today?

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