This is a self-portrait of myself from 1998. This was my second trip to Italy. We had been there the previous year but our hotel was a colossal rip-off and I was determined not to ever stay in an Italian hotel again. (I’ve mellowed since.) One day while reading the New Yorker, I stumbled upon an ad for villa rentals in Italy and in due course, I was in touch with a very officious man by the name of Daniel who ran a small Villa rental agency called Vacanza Bella. In no time, we had booked the tower of the Castello Montalto which was the site of the Battle of Montalto sometime in the early 14th century. While the castle was under siege from the Florentines, the army of the Duke of Montalto poured boiling oil down from the parapets onto the attackers. Lovely!
The castle was now owned by an American woman who was married to a local guy and had turned the a large part of estate into rental units for tourists. We had the tower. It was quite the joint. In the living room were 4 or 5 large paintings on the wall of dwarves. (there is one of them to my right in the photo.) Every night as we returned from our outings in Tuscan villages we would sit in the living room and fantasize about the paintings and what they were doing there.
One day the American owner knocked on the door and asked us how things were going. We replied that we were delighted a could be and she offered to show us some of the tower. She took us up the winding staircase and eventually there was a small door to one side about half way up the stairs. She opened it and inside was a small room about 6 feet by 5 feet with a table, a candlestick and a small bed. next to the door was a plaque with an inscription in Italian. She translated it and it went something like this.
“Whoever enters this blessed spot will know that they have eternally pleasured me and I honor them for that. They are forever in my heart.”
She said it was the traditional room of her husband’s ancestors who would exercise their right to seduce the peasants who worked in the fields outside their castle. As we climbed the stairs, she went on and on about the history of the castle and its minor place in history. Eventually the tour was over and she asked me if we had any questions.
“What about the dwarfs” I asked?
“Oh!“ she replied, “that has nothing to do with the history of the castle. but If you are interested…”
Her father was a painter in San Francisco during the depression. He was famous as a copier of old paintings and eventually his talents were noticed by the king of Spain in the early thirties. The king was an admirer of Velázquez who had done the originals 300 years ago. The originals were no longer the property of the Spanish, having been looted by Napoleon and shipped to the Louvre so he hired her father to paint the copies. Her father spent a great deal of time working on this project but unfortunately he never got paid for the job. Along came the Spanish Revolution, and Franco of course refused to honor the contract and that was that. Her father died penniless in San Francisco in the early fifties and the painting lay in storage unknown to anybody for 20 years. Eventually after her mother’s death, their existence came to light. By that time she was married to this Italian guy and had the painting shipped over to Italy to decorate her castle.
Over the years I have seen many illustrations of these dwarves, in museums and in print. Apparently the king of Spain in the 17th century kept them around for amusement as jesters and had Velázquez paint them. The copies were pretty good.