The Marvelous Hairy Girls

The Gonzales sisters were one in a billion—all three of them.

The Marvelous Hairy Girls

Portrait of Antonietta Gonzales, by Lavinia Fontana, cover image of “The Marvelous Hairy Girls.”

In terms of pathology, the girls born to Petrus Gonzales (1537-1618) were one in a billion, but not in the ‘one in a million’ sense we’ve come to associate with love songs or romantic poetry. Petrus’ daughters—Maddalena, Francesca and the youngest, Antonietta—were all afflicted with a then-unheard of genetic defect known as hypertrichosis universalis (or Ambras syndrome), which caused their bodies to be covered with abnormal amounts of hair in equally abnormal places, giving them an unmistakable Wolf man-like appearance.

One might expect that the girls—and their likewise afflicted father and brothers—would have been ostracized, yet they were welcomed in the courts of Europe and received considerable attention from physicians and nobles alike. In the new book “The Marvelous Hairy Girls” (Yale University Press), author Merry Wiesner-Hanks—Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—recounts the Gonzales family’s wild and wooly story, and tries to imagine how they might have perceived the world in which they lived. Failure recently touched base with Wiesner-Hanks to ask her a handful of “Marvelous” questions, and in return received equally marvelous answers.

What led you to write a book about the Gonzales sisters?
I came across the portrait that is on the book’s cover [Portrait of Antonietta Gonzales] when I was looking for something else, and I simply could not forget Antonietta’s face. I decided I had to learn more about the hairy little girl in the pink brocade dress, and as I did, I realized that her story, and that of her family, was a fascinating one. The Gonzales family was unique, but also intertwined with many of the key developments of their era, including the explorations of discovery, the bloody religious wars, the artistic movements of the Renaissance, and the growth of science. Obviously, the sisters were completely different than other girls—they were “wonders of nature” and exotic “wild women”—but at the same time their lives were very much like those of other women; Maddalena married and had children (at least one of whom was hairy), Francesca remained unmarried, and Antonietta died young.

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