“Look, a great miracle of nature. Magdalena Ventura from the town of Accumulus in Samnium, in the vulgar tongue Abruzzo in the Kingdom of Naples, aged 52 and what is unusual is when she was in her 37th year she began to go through puberty and thus a full growth of beard appeared such that it seems rather that of a bearded gentleman than a woman who had previously lost three sons whom she had borne to her husband.”
Thus reads the Latin inscription adorning what is arguably one of the strangest pieces of the art to emerge from seventeenth cen- tury Italy. Whilst Flemish artist Sir Anthony van Dyck was busy wooing the English court with his intimate style of portraiture, his delicate hands and features, Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera was attempting to do the same with his work in the Neapolitian court. His career as leading artist in Naples was sealed with his beautiful portraits of religious figures and court ladies.
So what is a man who prayed so heavily at the altar of Caravaggio doing painting such a subversive subject? And what is it even depicting? It appears the Duke of Naples at the time, Ferdinand II, had rather a strong interest in collecting art depicting the wonderful and strange: he indulged in the fashion for subversive art. Naturally, wishing to cosy up to his patron and earn himself a few extra gold coins in his rich leather purse swishing at his belt, Ribera was more than obliging to indulge in the Duke’s interests.
But what is the scene unfurling before the viewer’s eyes? In his inscription, the artist provides the viewer with all the information he or she could want: and apparently all there is surrounding the woman in the painting. She is celebrated within the limits of oil on canvas, a ‘miracle of nature’. But simultaneously, she appears to be treated as a novelty for her bearded appearance. In her facial hair, she bypasses the pubescent mass upon the chin of her husband. He is emasculated almost to the point of castration in the light of Ventura’s flowing locks.
In the seventeenth century, the sight of the portrait and its female sitter was undoubtedly a curiosity for many viewers. Even now, it isn’t common to see a bearded breast-feeding woman bearing her naked breast in the street. It is tempting to read the column at her side like an advertisement for a freak show: merely another oddity in the Duke’s vast collection.
However, look closely at the expressions of the sitters. The couple’s expressions are worried, forlorn at the woman’s strange condition now believed to be brought on by an ovarian tumour producing excessive testosterone. What appears to be a curiosity contains a heart-breaking story of the fear of social prejudice: of being viewed as a freak. The Duke’s eyes may have glinted with glee when this sad tableau first adorned his palace walls. However, for the sitters, Ribera adorns their eyes with the beginnings of a stream of tears. As opposed to the laughs emerging from the tourists led around Bedlam Hospital to look at other ‘miracles of nature’, the viewer is stupefied into a contemplation of the uncertain fate of a woman facing so many stigmas in the early modern world.