Braccio di Bartolo, better known as Nano Morgante, was Cosimo I de Medici’s court dwarf in 16th century Florence.
It is a well documented fact that many courts of Europe in those days possessed court dwarves. The word “possessed” here is not used innocently; they were literally considered as possessions by their masters. As clearly explained in Touba Ghadessi’s article Inventoried monsters, Dwarves and hirsutes at court (Journal of the History of Collections vol. 23 no. 2 (2011) pp. 267–281), the dwarves were listed in the ruler’s inventories among other objects, like clothing, or jewels. They were considered a great sign of wealth and power, because of their rarity and what was considered monstrosity. They were even sometimes exchanged as precious gifts.
The 16th century courts of Europe were in a phase of fascination for the unknown, scientific discoveries and exotic objects which were often included in curiosity cabinets. Dwarves and other people suffering from rare afflictions or deformities were considered monsters and collected in the same fashion. Although their station was above that of animals, they were still possessions.
It seems that Nano Morgante was an important part of Cosimo I de Medici’s court. Rather than being considered as a monster, he was given a retainer, land and allowed to marry. He apparently fathered children who were his heirs. It remains strange though, that he was considered as a possession and a person simultaneously. Even stranger still, that he was portrayed multiple times, in paintings and sculptures by well known artists commissioned by Cosimo.
In all those pieces, he is shown naked, in a somewhat heroic pose. Sculpture of him riding a tortoise is commonly thought to be a caricature of classical equestrian statues. To our “modern” eyes, it is quite a shocking sculpture, sometimes I think more so than it would have been back when it was created. This sculpture (turned into a fountain), is in Florence, in the Boboli Gardens, where unsuspecting tourists are surprised by it at the end of their visit. I certainly was. I considered it a refreshing change from all the classical sculptures of the garden and of Florence in general. I must also admit it made me smile and of all the pieces of the garden, this one is the only one I clearly remember. It is ridiculous but, in my eyes, not in a demeaning way to Braccio di Bartolo.
While I was researching this post online, I found a large amount of extremely negative comments from tourists who saw the fountain, describing it as a disgusting deformed fat man riding a tortoise. While the situation in which Nano Morgante is shown is quite absurd, but his body is represented in a quite realistic manner, in the sense that it’s not impossible that he looked like that. I find it sad and disconcerting that most people today are disgusted by bodies that do not fit the norm. It seems that the Medici court was more open minded about differences, at least in the case of Nano Morgante.
In this life-size double-portrait, Bronzino is showing Braccio di Bartolo before and after the hunt for small birds. Although his nudity can be considered shocking, I consider that in this case, he is not shown to look ridiculous. He is not being a silly court jester, he is hunting, what was considered a noble activity. Maybe Bronzino was celebrating di Bartolo’s difference in these paintings and not subjecting him to ridicule? We will never really know.
Although having court dwarves is an idea that is completely unacceptable in today’s society, Cosimo I de Medici seems to have treated di Bartolo with some humanity. He gave him a financially comfortable life and made him completely unforgettable for centuries to come by having him immortalized in art.