The mighty and their midgets
March is a glorious month in Italy. The warm weather arrives; temperatures moderate from winter’ss chill to the mid-teens Celsius. Buds begin to burst; shop owners stuff sidewalk pots with flowers.
We visit Lombardy to pay homage to two sixteenth century women. In Parma there’s Giovanna da Piacenza, a Benedictine abbess who discovered Antonio Allegri, the painter later known as Correggio. He created a gazebo in Giovanna’s bedroom, Camera di San Paolo, by painting the thin ribs of the domed ceiling to look like bamboo surrounded by fruit, putti, and allegorical panels.
The other leader is Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantova, known as la prima donna del mondo, the first woman of the world. Among those who visited her 500-room Palazzo Ducale was Leonardo da Vinci; he painted her portrait and advised on some vases she’d acquired. With the help of her refined taste and knowledgeable eye, the Gonzaga family built the world’s largest art museum consisting of two thousand paintings – including thirty-six Titians – as well as twenty thousand sculptures.
In those days, many courts kept a midget or two for a bit of ribald fun. The Gonzaga line loved midgets. A midget appears in a fresco by Andrea Mantegna, done for what became the Camera degli Sposi (Wedding Chamber) of Isabella and Francesco. What started out as a few midgets grew to such a number that an apartment, appropriate to their diminutive size, was built for them in the palace. Today, their lodgings are not open to tourists, but you can peer through a doorway covered by an iron gate to get an idea of the lavish life led by the little people and the high honor in which they were held.