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A Brazilian Marmoset, a Spanish Princess, and the Paintrix Sofonisba Anguissola

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Fig. 4: Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of Infanta Catalina Micaela with a Marmoset, c. 1572-1573, oil on canvas, 56.2 x 47 cm, Private Collection

King Philip II of Spain’s daughters, Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633) and Catalina Micaela (1567-1597), lived in the Alcázar royal palace in Madrid surrounded by exotic pets and companions, such as small and large parrots, but, in particular, exotic monkeys, which they often dressed in bright, colorful clothes and jackets, sewn by royal court tailors (Fig. 1). Carpenters were commissioned to make special wooden stands for the parrots, which could be carried from room to room in the Alcázar. The two Infantas were inseparable from their songbirds, tame squirrels, and marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) imported from the jungles in Brazil, tamed by Tupinambá Amerindians. When the princesses traveled between royal residences, outside of Madrid, at different seasons of the year, their mascots came along as well, packed up in special baskets and cages for the journey.

Fig. 1: Anonymous (Flemish Painter?), Monkey, c. 1566, oil on paper, 22 x 16 cm, Philip II’s quarters, Palace of the Austrias, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Monasterio, inv. no. PN 10034449 © Patrimonio Nacional

Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela were once portrayed with two favorite pets. In 1571, the Ghent-Antwerp court portraitist, Jooris van der Straeten, was commissioned to paint this double portrait of the sisters, today in the Royal Collection Trust in London (Fig. 2). They are depicted with an African rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) and a tiny spaniel, which their father had bred for years in Spain, but which breed no longer exists. This portrait of Philip II with his second wife, Mary Tudor of England, depicts the same lapdogs he had given her as a wedding present (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2: Attribued to Jooris van der Straeten, Portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela, Daughters of Philip II, King of Spain, 1571, oil on canvas, 134 x 145.8 cm, London (Royal Collection Trust), inv. no. RCIN 404331 © Royal Collection Trust

This particular portrayal contextualizes the Infantas in their regal ‘playground’ in the Alcázar palace. Van der Straeten perhaps painted them in a small room, the antecamara, in the queen’s quarters where their sittings with the painter took place. The intimate human/animal relationship is conveyed by the younger Catalina who gently holds the toy dog’s paw with her left hand. This canine lying on the small table represents fidelity. Her elder sister Isabella, to the right, handles the exotic, female bird with the mastery of a court falconer, keeping it in check with great resolution. Ringnecks are talkative birds, known for their extraordinary intelligence, learning a vocabulary of over 250 words, and were popular pets at Renaissance Iberian courts, when Portugal and Spain had established global trade empires. For the us, as spectators, the parakeet consolidates the entire composition, carefully positioned by Jooris van der Straeten almost in the middle of the canvas, to act as foil between the two vivacious princesses. Their identical green velvet dresses - symbolizing nature - match the parakeet’s plumage, while the deep red color of its beak compliments the velvet table cloth underneath.

Fig. 3: After Lucas de Heere, Portrait of Philip II as King of England with Mary Tudor, c. 1554-1558, oil on canvas, 106.1 x 77.4 cm, Greenwich, National Martime Museum, inv. no. BHC2952 © National Martime Museum

Another, just as extraordinary portrait, is Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrayal of Catalina Micaela, painted slightly later in 1572-1573. The young princess, aged six, masterfully cradles with both hands, a long-tail Brazilian marmoset (Fig. 4). Anguissola has opted to take up Jooris van der Straeten’s example in adding favorite pets, and has depicted the impish monkey, nibbling on a snack, reinforcing this little girl’s love for her mischievous and inseperable companion. Catalina wears luxurious black damask and silk with a black link chain. Her sumptuous dark dress, black considered the colour of power and a fashionable colour favored by the Habsburg courts, compliments the marmoset’s muted grey fur. The yellow and white jonquil, plucked from the gardens of her father’s country residence at Aranjuez, and woven into her hair, provides the only colour contrast. The feisty monkey, wearing a golden chain and harness which are barely visible, surely did not behave or sat still during portrait sittings, but nevertheless Sofonisba immortalized Catalina’s pet with the same princely composure and dignity as his young mistress, as both solemnly look at the paintrix with large, expressive eyes.

These two portraits by Jooris van der Straeten and Sofonisba Anguissola provide us with previews of two royal sisters, princesses who would later grow up to be impressive women and rulers at their respective courts in the Netherlands and in Savoy.

For more on Habsburg animals, pets and menageries consult:

Annemarie Jordan Gschwend, The Story of Süleyman the Elephant. Celebrity Elephants and other Exotica in Renaissance Portugal, Zurich-Philadelphia: Pachyderm Productions, 2010.

Echt tierisch!: Die Menagerie des Fürsten, Innsbruck-Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband, 2015 (with essays and catalogue entries by A. Jordan Gschwend, Thomas Kuster, Veronika Sandbichler and Katharina Seidel).

© This post was written by Dr. Annemarie Jordan Gschwend

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