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Collecting Human Monsters: Guido Guerzoni on Human Diversity in Early Modern Science

Guido Guerzoni presented his ongoing research on the “collecting” of individuals with various forms of physical disability or unusual characteristics in early modern courts on Tuesday, March third, at the Early Science Workshop, a DHI Research Cluster. Labeled as “monstra” or monsters, people with mental illness, hirsutism, dwarfism, or other forms of disability as well as people of color were “collected” in the aristocratic courts in a manner that Guerzoni argues was similar to the making and display of scientific collections.

 Guerzoni, an economic and cultural historian, teaches at Bocconi University and directs the M9 Museum of the Twentieth Century in Venice. He is the author of numerous books, including Apollo and Vulcan: The Art Markets in Italy, 1400-1700 and Waxing Eloquent: Italian Portraits in Wax.

The practice gestured to activities of scientific collection and display which were the precursors to modern scientific museums. Rare animals and botanical varieties, Guerzoni notes, were in the same genre of collectibles as human “monsters.” Living and nonliving collectibles were part of the same culture of curiosity, and were considered on the same level by courtiers of the time.

Novelty, as a sign of royal power, could be displayed in human or nonhuman form. People who represented such novelty circulated along with animals, plants or other specimens which bore the same capacity to indicate aristocratic power and enlightenment. The search for such specimens was costly, with individuals often being sent to European courts from distant continents.

It is no coincidence, Guerzoni claims, that science museums appeared in the exact same period. Human “monsters” were a sort of collection within a collection, part of royalty’s aggregated knowledge of the world.

Guerzoni sees legal, medical and social theory all overlapping in his analysis of the lives and representations of individuals living as “monsters” in early modern courts. While his talk focused exclusively on European sources, Guerzoni stressed that this phenomenon was not limited to Europe, but could be seen in other aristocratic courts, such as China and Japan.

Until the eighteenth century, according to Guerzoni, it was common to display beautiful paintings in the rooms of pregnant women in the hopes that they would act as a positi

ve influence on the child’s appearance. Blame often fell on the mothers of children born with physical variations considered outside the bounds of norms and beauty. Ugliness was considered an inheritance or marker of past sins.

Children born with unusual physical characteristics, although the progeny of ordinary people, often came to live in aristocratic courts where their permanent minority status prevented full freedom of movement. Nevertheless, they had considerable influence as some of the most intimate companions of powerful aristocrats.

This minority status was linked with visual and discursive connections to childlike characteristics. Paintings of individuals with dwarfism often also displayed them with animals, most often dogs, drawing parallels of loyalty and animality.

Guerzoni was particularly struck by the apparent intimacy between aristocratic patrons and “monsters” of the court. They normally slept together, often in the same bed. Some historians have kept an uncomfortable silence around this phenomena, stigmatizing the insensitivity of those surrounding themselves with “freaks of nature” whom they used as ornaments.

Guerzoni suggests there may be more to this narrative by linking this “passion for disability” to scientific practices of the time. Courts and collections, he says, are two faces of the same coin. Royal courts were collections of human beings, ranked organized and displayed to the world. Knowledge of the order of the universe could be seen reflected in the display of the human collection of the court, and thus the full diversity of human form was critical to the achievement of a comprehensive human collection. The exceptional or abnormal were just as constitutive of the court as was the norm. The court was a microcosm, a living museum of mankind in which all types and species must be present. It was also believed that the “ugliness” of physical heterogeneity would highlight the beauty of non-disabled courtiers.

Guerzoni also points to the new availability, in the early modern period, of classical sources referencing “monsters” which often linked them to aristocratic manners. In some senses, early modern collecting can read as the conscious revival of a cultural legacy and an attempt among courtiers to link themselves with Roman society, with its markets for slaves and “monsters.”

Guerzoni’s talk was co-sponsored by the Early Science Workshop and the Center for Science and Innovation Studies. The Early Science Workshop will be holding their next event on Friday, April 27, a symposium titled “Distillation and Alchemy: Science, Society and Sentiment.”

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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