Monday, September 22, 2008

Royal Monkey Business

Pietro Barbino I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the binge drinking monkeys over at Got Medieval, but why should the medieval revelers have all the fun? You can find plenty of monkey antics in royal courts too.

For example, take the Medici court. Despite their reputation as the omnipotent godfathers of Florence, they loved a good monkey prank just as much as the next person. Some of this monkey business can be found in the following account describing a scuffle between the Medici court’s favorite dwarf, Pietro Barbino (possibly depicted in the this statue) and a ferocious monkey:

“There was a bit of entertainment in the form of a combat between the dwarf and a really good monkey that belongs to the Provveditore.The dwarf had two injuries, one in the shoulder and the other in the arm, while the monkey was left with his legs crippled. The monkey eventually gave up and begged the dwarf for mercy. The dwarf, however, didn’t understand the monkey’s language and having seized the monkey by the legs from behind, kept beating his head on the ground. If My Lord the Duke [Cosimo I de’ Medici] hadn’t stepped in, the dwarf would have gone on to kill him. The dwarf fought naked, having nothing to protect him except a pair of undershorts that covered his private parts. Suffice it to say that the dwarf was the victor and he won ten scudi in gold, which had been secured by pledging the ring of the Bishop of Forlì [Bernardo de’ Medici].”
Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Mediceo del Principato 1171, insert 2, folio 62 (Entry 6488 in the "Documentary Sources" database.)

When was the last time you saw a naked dwarf wrestle an angry monkey? If Cosimo had not stepped in…all my scudi would have been on the naked dwarf. And what if the monkey had put up a better fight? Well then we might not ever appreciate this great piece of art immortalizing Pietro Barbino flashing his bits in the Boboli gardens. Monkeys can change the course of history.

Catherine of Aragon with her monkeyMonkey Portraits
And like the medieval monkeys (which btw would be a great name for a children’s book), royal monkeys were also portrayed in art. Pet monkeys were the hairless dogs of their day. Only the rich could afford them in their menagerie so they became regal status symbols. They also gave a lighthearted feel to a painting and could more directly symbolize controling your monkey lust. The painting to the left is of Catherine of Aragon and is believed to have been commissioned around 1530. An earlier painting depicting the same subject is dated at 1525. Around this time, Henry VIII started to monkey around (sorry...couldn't resist) with Anne Boleyn and began seeking a divorce from Catherine. This divorce would eventually lead to his break from the Catholic Church.

Notice how the monkey grabs at the cross. Could the monkey symbolize Henry? Is the artist saying, “Henry's a silly monkey to go against the Catholic religion” Or maybe the monkey symbolizes Anne Boleyn and the artist is saying, “you’re a fool to play with religion. And btw, you look like a monkey.”

Anne did hate monkeys so my guess is on the latter.

Love Me...Love my Monkey
Catherine the GreatIn Catherine the Great's court, every courtier fought for an audience with the young, foppish favorite of the queen - Plato Zubov. Zubov was an audacious 22 to Catherine's 60, but age didn't matter much to the ailing queen. Catherine trusted Zubov enough to handle the political dredgery of meeting with generals, foreigners and royal butt kissers in search of favors. Yet royal courtiers best hold on to their wigs if they sought a meeting with Catherine's studly gatekeeper. Zubov's monkey was known to amuse both himself and his master by jumping on shoulders and stealing wigs right off the heads of unsuspecting visitors. The eager courtiers were forced to endure, but everyone knows that there is nothing funny about a monkey stealing your wig.

I am sure there are plenty more monkey tales, but those are the ones that stick out in my mind.

Sources and Further Reading:
The Medici Archive Project. Referenced online at:
MacDonogh Katherine. Reigning Cats and Dogs. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Troyant, Henri. Catherine the Great. New York, NY: Penguin Group 1994


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post! I've always wondered about monkeys in the royal courts and how they got there.

James said...

What, no mention of the Hartlepool Monkey?? :-)))