Maddalena, Antonietta and Francesca Gonsalus/Gonsalvus were celebrated in sixteenth-century Europe for their extreme hirsutism (excessive hairiness), a condition inherited from their father who was captured as a child on the Canary Islands and brought to the French court of Henri II. Portraits of Maddalena (also known as Madchen or Madeleine) and her family hang in Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, giving rise to the name Ambras Syndrome for congenital hypertrichosis. Maddalena also appears in the compendium Monstrorum historia by naturalist Ulisee Aldrovandi (1522–1605), as well as a zoological compendium by Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600) and a miniature commissioned by Rudolph II of Austria.
Where twenty-first century popular sensibilities relegate the display of hirsute individuals to the ‘lowest common denominator’ realm of the freak show and tabloid exploitation, the sixteenth‑century Gonsalus family was seen as properly belonging among the privileged and educated audience of Europe’s courts.The regal dress in the various portraits suggest that the Gonsalus sisters came to enjoy a measure of privilege and regard; Duke Ranuccio Farnese, for example, is believed to have bought a house in Parma for Maddalena’s dowry when she married in 1593.
In 2009, the sisters became the subject of the biography, The Marvelous Hairy Girls, by Merry Weisner-Hanks.
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