Discover entertaining essays on a wide variety of artworks from our extensive collections in the section Art Stories.
We know about giants and dwarfs from myths and fairy tales. And although many of these stories focus on what is strange, preternatural and magical, they are often inspired by the biographies of real people who were exceptionally small or tall.
This fascination with differently-sized people dates back to ancient Rome, when people of small stature belonged to the retinues of members of the elite but were also regarded as “prestige objects” of and by the powerful. But over the centuries the majority of exceptionally tall or small people tended to scrape a living on the fringes of society. Some earned their bread and butter by exhibiting themselves at fun or trade fairs. A few were invited to join the household of a member of the nobility or the court of a prince or a king.
We know very little about them because only a handful achieved a certain degree of fame: they include Morgante, the court dwarf of Cosimo de’ Medici (fig. 1); Thomele, the court dwarf of Archduke Ferdinand II; Bartolomeo Bona, a giant at the court of Archduke Maximilian II; Anton Frank, a bodyguard at the court in Brunswick (fig. 2); and little Józef Boruwlaski from Poland and the giant Bernardo Gigli who made a living as a travelling artist.
The general understanding of the obvious otherness of body size – in the Middle Ages and in popular superstition, they were sometimes regarded as bestial abnormities and the spawn of the devil – changed during the humanist Renaissance. Anything divergent, strange or unusual was no longer regarded as the result of man’s sins but as part of God’s creation and plan. Although curiosity and voyeurism continued to play a role, rationalism and empiricism fueled the evolution of science, which began to examine and study the human body using medical methods.
Court dwarfs, who were often also court jesters, were popular between the Late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century. This made people of small stature a „must-have” for every self-respecting princely court. The main centres were the North-Italian courts of Mantua, Ferrara and Florence, and the Spanish court, where around 69 court dwarfs lived between 1550 and 1700. They often served as retainers or guarded animals, were sought-after playmates for aristocratic children, or undertook various other activities at court. So size is always a question of perspective: small of stature but nonetheless in high demand.
There were much fewer unusually tall people. Here, too, perspective is important: today, someone who is over 1.70 m (c. 5 ft 6 in) tall is completely unremarkable, but during the early modern era he would have been more than a head taller than everyone else. Such impressively tall (mainly male) people generally served in the military, for example as scouts or a prince’s bodyguard. Among the most famous are the Potsdam Giants, the members of an elite infantry regiment founded by the King of Prussia in 1710, who had to be at least 1.88 m (c. 6 ft 2 in) tall. Unusually tall women were an exception, but we know of some who lived at different courts. Artificial giants – i.e. daring men on stilts – first appeared in ancient Greece in a military context. Later, they performed their popular acrobatic feats at bourgeois and courtly festivities.
Because they looked different, these people of small and tall stature were regarded as “wonders of nature” – a label that was finally cemented with images on flyers and illustrations in scientific encyclopedias. They were also included in the princely Kunst- und Wunderkammern (chambers of art and natural wonders) and the scholarly collections of naturalia amassed in the sixteenth and seventeenth century that assembled the knowledge of the then-known world in a microcosm. It is therefore not surprising that the Kunstkammer of Archduke Ferdinand II at Ambras Castle contains what were believed to be the bones of giants, and books and relicts formerly owned by giants and dwarfs that recount anecdotes from their turbulent lives. Life-size and life-like portraits also documented their physical diversity. The fact that they were portrayed by the leading artists of their time – among them Giambologna and the celebrated painters Alonso Sanchez Coello, Antonis Mor, and Diego Velazquez – also bears witness to the status and prestige of people of exceptionally small or tall stature.