chapter  10
15 Pages

The Mirror and the Cage: Queens and Dwarfs at the Early Modern Court


Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain, arrives in France to visit her grandmother Catherine de Medici, collector of marvels. With her is a gentleman carrying a cloth-covered cage, who announces that the Infanta wishes to present the queen with a parrot that can speak many languages. From the cage comes a voice speaking eloquently in French, Dutch, Spanish, English, and Italian. With a flourish the gentleman whips away the cloth-revealing a female dwarf, orating fluently. The court erupts in cries of shock and delight.1 The Infanta had hit her mark: while Catherine had a vast menagerie of exotic pets, she had an absolute mania for dwarfs, collecting rare specimens from Poland and Africa. Her latest acquisition turned her chamber into a wonder-booth for staging what Bacon called “frivolous impostures for pleasure and strangeness.”2