Art Spotlight: Faustino Bocchi's Dwarf Obsession

'Head Formed Out of Pygmies' by Faustino Bocchi © Christie's Images/Corbis

Dwarfs have long fascinated the artist. Just as dwarfism occurs in every human race, we find artistic depictions of dwarfs in every culture and time period. Some of the earliest works date back to ancient Egyptian culture, which venerated two different dwarf gods and showed -- at times -- considerable tolerance and even respect for an oft-mistreated demographic.

The role of the dwarf runs the gamut through human history, from high court positions to mere spectacle. From the 15th to 18th centuries, European dwarfs often served as gente de placer or 'persons of pleasure' for the amusement of royal families [source: Haworth, Chudley]. As such, they frequently popped up in portraits, though typically as mere "decorative elements situated at the fringes of the lives of others more important than themselves" [source: Adelson].

But then what are we to make of Italian painter Faustino Bocchi's dwarf obsession? Above, we see his Arcimboldo-esque "Head Formed Out of Pygmies" and at the bottom of the post we see a rabbit terrorizing a fantastically diminutive dwarf village in a piece reminiscent of Bosch or Brueghel. And this was no mere side-project: Bocchi (1659-1741) made bizarre dwarf paintings his specialty. But to what end?

Bocchi and the Master

According to Caterina Napoleone's excellent 1997 FMR Magazine article "A World of Dwarves," the answer is pretty straight forward. One might as well ask, "Why do dogs play poker in the paintings of C. M. Coolidge?"

The Dwarf of Cardinal Granvelle, ca 1560, by Antonis Mor

While tragic and noble dwarfs popped up in fine portraiture of the time (see right), Bocchi's paintings followed the baser tradition of delighting in deformity. In addition to his artistic talents, Bocchi possessed an absurd wit -- and the crude whimsey of his dwarf paintings resonated with certain eccentric local collectors.

The dwarfs of Bocchi are deformed, diminutive peasants forced to fight off their like-sized domestic animals. But as Napoleone points out, this theme takes on a darker symbolism in the subsequent work of the artist or artists known only as The Master of the Fertility of the Egg (so named for the painting "The Fertility of the Egg.")

In the Master's work, the dwarfs are locked in a dire struggle against the animal world. Here, the chickens, cats, owls, frogs and lobsters are seen to wear clothing and wield human weapons. It's a post-apocalyptic struggle for survival as a stunted humanity fights in vane against the rebellious beasts.

In "Battle Between Skeletons and Animals," the dwarfs fight alongside the animate dead against an overwhelming force of united animals. As Napoleone points out, the message is simple: "that the whole brawl of life is in vain."

Death and the collapse of human order is inevitable. We have only to look to the dwarfs to see it.

"The Spring - The Rabbit" by Bocchi.
Paolo e Federico Manusardi/Getty

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.