Between Flowers and Disability: A Portrait of a Disabled Man in Ambras Castle

AutorIn: Hila Kohner
Themenbereiche: Kultur
Textsorte: Artikel
Releaseinfo: M.A student, Department of Art History, Tel Aviv University
Copyright: © Hila Kohner 2017

Between Flowers and Disability: A Portrait of a Disabled Man in Ambras Castle

A portrait of a disabled man is displayed in the Cabinet of Wonders at Ambras Castle (Schloss Ambras), which belonged to Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria (1529-1595). Ferdinand II was the emperor of Tyrol from 1564 until his death in 1595 and was considered one of the greatest collectors in Europe of his era. The portrait – known as The Portrait of a Disabled Man of Ambras – features a person, whose four limbs are disabled, lying on his stomach upon a table. His legs are folded towards his backside and his thin arms lay close to his body and it appears that his fingers are spastic.[1] The man is wearing a red hat with flowers and a frilly white Spanish collar. His gaze is aimed towards the viewer with a grin. In the background there is a closed wooden chest. The experience of viewing the piece required a physical interaction with the portrait: over the man’s naked body there used to be a piece of red paper one could lift for a full view. A little tear, where the red paper was ones attached, can still be seen above the disable man's back. The portrait is extremely enigmatic as both the artist and the date are unknown and because it is unusual compared to other 16th century portraits.

It is difficult to understand and link the details of the portrait to a stable meaning, not only because of the lack of reliable periodical information, but because there is no known contemporary parallel. Among the most enigmatic features of the portrait is the floral hat worn by the man. Volker Schönwiese and Christian Mürner – who studied the portrait – identify it as an attribute of the natural fool, as they relate it to the representation of the natural fools with the greenery atop their heads, and provide an example in the natural fools’ chariot engraving from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I Triumphal Procession, where they appear with crowns made from wild greenery.[2]

In this essay, I will examine the disabled man’s floral hat by using the writings of a known botanist from the 16th century – Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501-1577). Following the method suggested by Sefy Hendler’s book Gracious and Beautiful Monster: The Litrary Universe of Bronzino's Nano Morgante[3] where he characterizes the semantic field of the greenery in Morgante the dwarf’s portrait using Mattioli’s writings and contemporary poetry in order to understand the social status of Morgante's character and the way his disability was perceived at Medici’s court[4], I wish to conduct the same kind of research and attempt to characterize the type of flowers on the disabled man’s hat. To do so, I will examine aspects of the science of botany in the era and the symbolic cultural field identified with the flowers. Through the study of the type of flowers, I will expand on the claim made by Schönwiese and Mürner, which is that the flowers on the hat mark the disabled man as a natural fool.[5]

As Schönwiese and Mürner state in their research, a basic distinction can be made between the natural disabled man, whose disability originates from birth and was considered the work of nature, and the actor or sinner fool, who is not necessarily disabled.[6] It appears that the disability of the man in the portrait originates primarily from his limbs, which makes him a natural fool as defined by the writings of the era Wundermenschen or Missgeburt. As opposed to the humanistic discussion, which evolved in relation to the wise fool and was mostly characterized as a social and religious morality discussion, the discourse of the humanists with regard to natural fools was a part of their preoccupation with natural phenomenality's questions.[7] It appears that the natural fool was considered to be on the boundary between the natural, the wild and uncontrollable and the human and cultural. People with disabilities were considered as wild wonders of nature and were thus mostly depicted with wild greenery.[8]

The disabled man’s hat is a kind of red top-hat, known from the portraits of young men distributed in Italy since the middle of the 15th century.[9] By the end of the 16th century, it was no longer common to wear those hats, while the Spanish collar adorned by the man is a distinct feature of the late 16th century fashion. Therefore, the hat is already presenting a particularly tough puzzle. The flowers on the hat are also a rare representation difficult to find. It is known that the flowers that appear in the renaissance portraits often carry iconographic meaning, but in this case, it is particularly difficult to identify a specific botanical type, since they are painted with short and swift brushstrokes and lack contours. The small bouquet contains a small number of colours, among which are white, red, yellow and green, which can fit a wide array of flowers.[10] Therefore, it is very difficult to match an iconographic meaning to the small bouquet. However, I would like to claim that the type of flowers can be assumed and linked to complex meanings using the writings of Ferdinand II’s doctor Pietro Andrea Mattioli.

Mattioli was among the most famous, perhaps even the most well-known Italian doctor and botanical researcher and medicine man of the 16th century. In 1544, he translated the Greek Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica into Italian and sold around 32 thousand copies – a huge distribution for the era.[11] In his book, Mattioli refers to the writings of Pliny the Elder and adds his own notes and innovations.[12] In 1554, Mattioli was called to Prague, where he served as the personal physician of the Holy Emperor Maximilian II and his brother, Archduke Ferdinand II. In 1558, he dedicated a renewed edition of his book to Archduke Ferdinand II.[13] In 1571, Mattioli settled in Ambras Castle and spent the last six years of his life there.[14]

Looking at the flower at the front of the Ambras Castle disabled man’s hat, it is easy to observe that the petals are whitish, with a yellow dot at the centre, a description that matches the daisy (Ox eye daisy), a flower that Mattioli describes in his book. Mattioli’s notes regarding the daisy reinforce the speculation that this is indeed the type of flower, and that it possesses meaning in marking the painted disabled man as a natural fool.

In Mattioli’s book, the daisy appears under the heading of Buphthalmo, which is a generic name for the family of daisies, meaning Ox eye. Mattioli begins with a description of the flower, as he does with all the others in his book, and relates the writings of Dioscorides regarding the flower.[15] When he writes about the Buphthalmo, which the Romans identified as the Chrysanthemum, he says it is actually the Bellis – which he describes as a white flower with a yellow centre much bigger than the Chamomile. He adds that the flowers change in colour and size and can also have red or pink petals. He continues to describe the flower’s distribution, habitat, and points to three types – large, medium and small.

In the 1573 Italian version of the book dedicated to Archduke Ferdinand II, the chapter on the daisy is expanded through images and additional taxonomical distinctions. Mattioli also adds an interesting description of the popular, periodical use of the flower. He says: “In this time, everyone uses them in garlands because their leafstalks are flexible and are easy to tie together. The result if a kind of bouquet that appears misty in the eye of the beholder, since it is difficult to identity the boundaries between the flowers. It seems that such an effect can only be created by nature."[16]

This remark carries meaning in relation to the disabled man’s hat, both in the description of the painted flower and the way it marks the man as a natural fool. Mattioli describes the daisies in the bouquet as interconnected in a way that makes it hard to ascertain where the different petals are placed. The painting also depicts the bouquet as a unified floral cluster. The representation of the flowers matches Mattioli’s description of the daisy bouquets, beloved by his contemporaries.

Yet this remark on the visual effect of the bouquet is the one that organizes the disabled man’s hat in the iconographic description of the natural fools. Mattioli’s inability as a scientist to understand that effect made by the spots of colour in the bouquet is resolved in the same way that the natural fools are explained: it is a unique result of a natural act, which lies beyond the mind of men – a natural wonder. This shows how the daisy bouquet can be perceived as marking of the natural folly.

However, the iconographic issue of the natural fools being depicted through more complex greenery, in many paintings that depict natural fools there is a more wild, flowerless greenery, which symbolizes their disability caused by a natural effect uncontrolled by men. For example, the engraving by the Augsburgian artist Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536), which depicts the dancing of the famous dwarves of the German folklore Bolikana and Marcolfus (1505-1536). [17] The engraving shows Marcolfus with a bird’s nest on top of his head, and Bolikana with a flowerless bush of leaves on top of hers.

There are very few images that depict disabled persons with flowers, and it seems that the flowers are reserved for women only. For instance, in the paintings that show Antonietta Gonzalez, where she appears with flowers atop her head. Antonietta was the daughter of the Gonzalez couple, whose portraits were given to Ferdinand II as a gift and are still hanging in the Cabinet of Wonder of the Ambras Castle today. As her father, Antonietta also had Hypertrichosis. In an engraving from Monstrorum Historia, written by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) in 1641, she appears with flowers decorating her hair, though it is very hard to classify the flowers taxonomically. In the 1595 oil painting by the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Antonietta also appears with flowers in her hair, among which are the lily of the valley and carnations. It is possible that the choice of these flowers not only meant she was a wonder of nature but also displayed her femininity and her availability for marriage.[18] If so, one asks why a man would be portrayed with flowers in his hat? It could be that the answer lies in an additional symbolism of the daisy – one that depicts him as feminine and thus as a figure of nature, or something between an animal and a human been.

During the 16th century, women were identified with forces of nature, often compared with the fruitful earth.[19] Moreover, the period Aristotelians viewed women as imperfect and a misbegotten male.[20] The femininity aspect of the flowers can also be a key in identifying them as daisies.

Since the daisy blooms in spring, it is an attribute of the goddess Venus, the goddess of beauty and love and a symbol of femininity.[21] For example, in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) famous painting Birth of Venus (Mid 1480's) there is a figure of a woman in the right side of the composition, identified by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) as the "Horae of Spring"; she is holding a large fabric decorated with daisies, and uses it to cover the body of necked Venus. Daisies are also depicted in Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), in which the meadow at the lower half of the composition is teeming with daisies, and daisies are adorning the hair of the spring goddess Flora at the right side of the composition.[22]

The identification of the flower as a daisy, and as the symbol for Venus (Luxuria) can help place the disabled man in the category of fools, since Venus was considered the protector of fools who were seduced by love and the pleasures of the flesh.[23] During the 16th and 17th centuries, the mythological image of Venus was described as the ruler of the kingdom of love and pleasures of the flesh, and represented the destructive power of femininity. Venus and her son Amor were the patrons of fools, and were considered as ones who could destroy the devoted. Her image as the ruler of the dangerous and dark kingdom of love was popular in German poems and plays of the 16th century, such as The Ship of Fools.[24] Venus is related to folly and death, sexuality and the moral punishment that it brings.[25] We could interpret the daisy as a feminine image that relates to Venus – the patron of fools. With that view, the disabled man is not only as a natural fool, but also one who has failed in love. If so, he could be seen as one who crossed the desired social norm and is wearing the daisies as his ridiculous badge of shame.

However, this interpretation of the disabled man’s flower bouquet is not conclusive, since the daisy has other meanings, which opposes that of the negative Venus and yet fits Schönwiese and Mürner’s theory that the bouquet is the marking of a natural fool. In this alternative interpretation, the daisy is a positive marking of innocence and childhood, and is an attribute of the Child Christ.[26] The symbol of childhood fits the theme of the natural fools, as they are considered infantile.

Verena O. Brown writes: "Children and fools were described as innocent because of their foolishness. Children have the opportunity to not only grow up but also gain more wisdom in the course of their lives. However, this is impossible for a fool. They will stay a fool for life."[27]

In this respect, we can conclude that the choice to present the disabled man with a daisy is a way to convey him to the viewers as childish and footless. It could even that imply the man had a mental disability, or at least thought to have one by the courtiers.

In conclusion, the representation of disabled people in the early-modern era paintings are complex and depict multi-level meaning, since the image of the disabled man was and remains on the border between the familiar and understood and the wondrous, natural and uncontrolled.[28]

The portraits of disabled men, such as this one, are meant to entertain and please the viewers, they depicted the playfulness of nature,[29] and the difficulty to connect them to an iconographic tradition stems from the face that they portrayed real people, who were active in the noble courts and told their life stories.[30] Thus, this is an individual representation, which depends on the time and era, and remains uncertain without the proper verification. However, the complexity of the daisy as a symbol of multiple meanings, which contradict each other, can certainly act as a metaphor to the perception of disabled people in the early-modern era society, as mid-beings who lack a unified, steady definition.



[1] Typical of AMC - Arthrogryposis multiplex congenital.

[2] Volker Schönwiese und Christian Mürner, Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes: Kulturgeschichtliche Studie zu Behinderung und ihre Aktualität, http://bidok.uibk.ac.at/library/schoenwiese-bildnis.html.

[3] Sefy Hendler, Gracious and Beautiful Monster: The Litrary Universe of Bronzino's Nano Morgante (Florence: Maschietto Editore, 2016).

[4] Ibid. 34-46.

[5] Schönwiese und Mürner, Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes.

[6] Ibid

[7] Paromita Chakravarti, "Natural fools and the historiography of Renaissance folly," Renaissance Studies 25 no. 2 (2011): 211.

[8] As can be seen for example in the picture of the natural fools chariot: Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Natürliche Narren, Woodcut, 1515. From: The Triumph of Maximilian I. Vienna, Ca 1515.

[9] These top-hats can be seen in several portraits of young noblemen (Sandro Botticelli, 1445-1510).

[10] Margot Rauch speculated that these colors may signify an Eastern-European origin for the figure.

Margot Rauch, ''Alles was seltsam ist – das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes als Sammlungsobjekt,'' Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes: Bildkultur der Behinderung vom 16. bis 21. Jahrhundert, Petra Flieger und Volker Schönwiese Hrsg. (Innsbruck: AG SPAK Bücher, 2007), 131.

[11] Pedanius Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, ca. 50-70 AD.

[12] Karen Meier Reeds, "Renaissance Humanism and Botany," Annals of Science 33 no.6 (1976): 525.

[13] Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Petri Andreae Matthioli senensis, serenissimi Principis Ferdinandi Auchiducis Austriae &c. Medici, commentarii secundo aucti, in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia : adjectis quam plurimis Plantarum, & Animalium Imaginibus quae in priore Editione non habentur, eodem Authore (Venetiis : Ex officina Erasmiana, 1558).

[14] Mattiloli died of plague in the city of Trento, during a visit to Italy in 1577. Cesare Preti, "Mattioli Pietro Andrea," Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 72 (2008). Online edition: http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/pietro-andrea-mattioli_(Dizionario-Biografico).

[15] Mattioli distinguishes between the daisy and the chamomile and chrysanthemum, but from the Roman era to Mattioli’s era there was no such distinction. Mirella Levi D'Ancona, The Garden of the Renaissance: botanical symbolism in Italian painting (Firenze: L.S. Olschki, 1977).

[16] Pietro Andrea Mattioli, I discorsi DI M. Pietro Andrea Matthioli sanse, medico cerareo, et del serenissimo principe Ferdinando arechidvca d'avstria &c. (Venetia: Appresso gli Heredi di Vincenzo Valgrisi: 1573), 596-598. Translation: Alexandra Dvorkin.

[17] For further reading: Michael Curschmann, "Marcolf or Aesop? The question of identity in visio-verbal contexts," Studies in Iconography 21 (2000): 1-45.

[18] The types of flowers and their meaning requires additional research.

[19] See for example the poem by Malchior Lorch, Allegory of Nature, 1565, in which he compares the earth to a pregnant woman, and to a mother breast-feeding her baby. In: Merry E. Wiesner, Women and gender in early modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 27-19.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Levi D'Ancona, The Garden of the Renaissance, 124.

[22] Roland Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1989), 156-159.

[23] Also named Dame Folly.

[24] Yona Pinson, The fools' journey: a myth of obsession in northern Renaissance art (Turnhout : Brepols, 2008), 98.

[25] Ibid. 102.

[26] Levi D'Ancona, The Garden of the Renaissance, 123.

[27] Verena Oberhöller Brown, "About the Portrait of Elisabeth: between recognition and projection," Natalie Mair trans., Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes: Bildkultur der Behinderung vom 16. bis ins 21. Jhd, Jahrhundert, Petra Flieger und Volker Schönwiese Hrsg. (Innsbruck: Verlag AG SPAK, 2007): 272-305.

[28] Chakravarti, "Natural fools and the historiography of Renaissance folly," 215.

[29] Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 192-193.

[30] Ibid. 198.

Bibliography

Chakravarti, Paromita. "Natural fools and the historiography of Renaissance folly." Renaissance Studies 25 no. 2 (2011): 208-227.

Curschmann, Michael. "Marcolf or Aesop? The question of identity in visio-verbal contexts." Studies in Iconography 21 (2000): 1-45.

Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.

Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. ca. 50-70 AD.

Flieger, Petra and Schönwiese, Volker Hrsg. Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes: Bildkultur der Behinderung vom 16. bis ins 21. Jahrhundert. Flieger, Petra und Volker Schönwiese Hrsg. Innsbruck: AG SPAK Bücher, 2007.

Hendler, Sefy. Gracious and Beautiful Monster: The Litrary Universe of Bronzino's Nano Morgante. Florence: Maschietto Editore, 2016.

Levi D'Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L.S. Olschki, 1977.

Lightbown, Roland. Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1989.

Matthioli, Pietro Andrea. I discorsi DI M. Pietro Andrea Matthioli sanse, medico cerareo, et del serenissimo principe Ferdinando arechidvca d'avstria &c. Venetia: Appresso gli Heredi di Vincenzo Valgrisi: 1573.

________, Petri Andreae Matthioli senensis, serenissimi Principis Ferdinandi Auchiducis Austriae &c. Medici, commentarii secundo aucti, in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia : adjectis quam plurimis Plantarum, & Animalium Imaginibus quae in priore Editione non habentur, eodem Authore. Venetiis : Ex officina Erasmiana, 1558.

Meier Reeds, Karen. "Renaissance Humanism and Botany." Annals of Science 33 no.6 (1976):519-542.

Oberhöller Brown, Verena. "About the Portrait of Elisabeth: between recognition and projection." http://bidok.uibk.ac.at/library/oberhoeller-portrait.html

Pinson, Yona. The fools' journey: a myth of obsession in northern Renaissance art. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2008.

Preti, Cesare. "Mattiolli Pietro Andrea." Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. 72 (2008). Online edition: http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/pietro-andrea-mattioli_(Dizionario-Biografico).

Rauch, Margot. ''Alles was seltsam ist – das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes als Sammlungsobjekt'. Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes: Bildkultur der Behinderung vom 16. bis 21. Jahrhundert. Flieger, Petra und Volker Schönwiese Hrsg. Innsbruck: AG SPAK Bücher, 2007.

Schönwiese, Volker und Christian Mürner. Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes Kulturgeschichtliche Studie zu Behinderung und ihre Aktualität. http://bidok.uibk.ac.at/library/schoenwiese-bildnis.html

Wiesner, Merry E. Women and gender in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

Quelle

Hila Kohner: Between Flowers and Disability: A Portrait of a Disabled Man in Ambras Castle.

Particular thanks is due to my dear friend Alexandra Dvorkin for translating Mattioli.

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