Of all the memorable images on view at the MIA in “The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynasty,” the one that may haunt you—may send you scurrying to Google to assuage your curiosity—is a small portrait of a girl named Antonietta Gonzales. She is about 8 or 9 years old, wearing a fine long dress, a large jeweled cross, and a placid, self-possessed expression. She could be mistaken for an aristocrat-in-training—a Habsburg, perhaps—except that she is standing inside a cave, and her face is completely covered with hair.
The portrait would be a mere curiosity if the story behind it wasn’t so explicative of the Habsburgs and their times. I’ll spare you the Google search. The girl’s father, Pedro, was born in 1556 in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Morocco, with the same hirsute condition. Word spread. No one had seen anyone quite like him. And by the time he could walk, Pedro was whisked to Paris so that the “werewolf of the Canaries” could be seen by the king of France.
Pedro would never leave the royal circle. He was dubbed “Barbet,” a kind of shaggy Belgian dog, and exhibited at court like a pet. At the same time, he was given rich clothing and elite tutors—an experiment to see if the “wild boy” could be educated—and surprised visitors by speaking flawless Latin. He married a beautiful (non-hairy) woman, had a handful of kids, and became Europe’s greatest living marvel.
The label for Antonietta’s portrait notes that she was depicted in a cave because many Europeans believed the people of the Canary Islands to be troglodytes—cavemen. But that’s not the whole story. It was the Age of Exploration, which is to say that much of the world was unexplored. Europeans were learning just enough to presume the old myths were true. One of these myths was the wild man, the ape man, thought to live in caves across Africa, Asia, and perhaps even the deep forests of Europe. To civilize such savages would prove the value of the nobility, its upholding of a higher order, and in medieval times the proto-Bigfoot frequently appeared in courtly symbolism. With Pedro, the nobles thought they finally had one for real. They gave him a cave to live in, in a royal park.
Pedro spent most of his time at the royal chateau in Fontainebleau, not the cave. And then, in 1581, he and his family were sent on a never-ending tour of European courts. Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II, an eccentric more interested in alchemy and natural history than governing, ordered the family to Vienna. By then the family had been painted and studied. Several paintings were in the “cabinet of curiosities” at Ambras Castle, in Innsbruck, Austria, where Antonietta’s portrait is usually still kept; others were included in an early scientific tome called Animalia Rationalia et Insecta—they are the only humans in the book. The emperor had more paintings made for his own collection. He would keep a group portrait, in which one of the girls is holding an owl, with his drawings of zoology.
The Gonzales children were eventually given away to aristocrats, as curious gifts. The Habsburgs thought they were freaks and displayed them along with other exotic objects as symbols of their worldly grasp, their empire on which the sun never set. But because of inbreeding, an attempt to keep control within the family, the Habsburgs became freakishly mutated—their jaws protruded, their intelligence waned, their reproductive capacities petered out. In the end, the Habsburg line—at least in Spain—went extinct. The Gonzales family, on the other hand, the first people documented with hypertrichosis (sometimes called werewolf syndrome or Ambras syndrome), eventually escaped the Habsburg courts. Antonietta’s older brother found employment in a cardinal’s castle in the tiny Italian town of Capodimente, and became a powerful trader. One by one, he reassembled his family in Italy, where they raised children and lived quiet lives far more normal than the Habsburg courts.