As the exhibition ‘A Tale of Two Women Painters’ at Museo del Prado is coming to its end, I will dedicate the last posts of January to both artists. Today is to one painting that was commented as the great absence of the exhibition and probably one of the most famous portraits signed by Lavinia Fontana: The portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez.
First of all who was Antonietta Gonzalez?
Antonietta Gonzalez or Antonietta Gonsalvus was one of the daughters of Petrus Gonsalvus, who was better known as ‘The Wild Gentleman of Tenerife’ and a Catherine, a beautiful Parisian woman.
She as well as her father and three of her siblings suffered of the hypertrichosis disease (commonly called ‘werewolf syndrome’), which is an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. The case of her family is the oldest case of this disease described in Europe.
Antonietta was abundantly represented in paintings, usually with her family. She grew up in Fontainebleau, where she was part of the court of King Henry II of France. It’s said that of the six children her parents had, she was the one who inherited the character and also a great physical resemblance to her father.
As a part of the French court, Antonietta participated in social activities with regularity. Between the years 1580 and 1590, her family travelled to Italy, where they stood at Margarita de Parma’s court. It is not known for sure the year in which Antonietta died, but it is known that she died in Capodimonte, the same place her father died.
In this portrait Antonietta seems to be less than 10 years old, she’s dressing a court dress and showing a handwritten note where she explains a little of her personal history:
‘Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honourable Marchesa of Soragna.’
It was suggested by historian Merry Weisner-Hanks that Lavinia Fontana met Antonietta and her family in Parma.
This beautiful portrait is probably my favourite painting by Lavinia Fontana. I love how she achieves to depict an accurate image of this little girl with such a strange disease, at the same time that she achieves to arise tenderness in the viewer. I completely agree with Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo, when he affirms that this is not a simple portrait, but a portrait with emotional involvement.
It’s clear that in this portrait Fontana depicts Antonietta as a nice and even pretty little girl, despite her disease. In further accordance to Dal Pozzolo it is an almost ‘scientific portrait’, because she depicts Antonietta with a wealth of details, not trying to hide her sickness, but without emphasise it.
To some critics, Fontana shows in this portrait a hybrid being between a doll-like figure and a hairy creature in a court dress. Antonietta’s entire face is covered by a thick growth of hair.
- The portrait painted by Fontana was used in the 2016 horror game Layers of Fear and nicknamed ‘Babyface’.
- It is possible to see the preparatory sketch at the Morgan Library.