About the original Bufones
compiled from numerous contemporary sources
paintings by Diego Velázquez
oil on canvas
PABLO DE VALLADOLID
An actor and manager of one of the licensed theatres in Madrid. Probably not in fact from Valladolid, but since that was the birthplace of Philip IV, it’s a good name to have. A favorite entertainer at the court, familiar with the best poetry and the theatrical tastes of the Queen (more and more, she prefers comedies, and love stories). Ensconced in royal favor, he organizes and directs the troupe of bufones in court entertainments when more than a song or two are required. Attractive and winningly confident of his appeal, he’s a master at evaluating people and assessing their usefulness. He presents himself as a good-natured, trustworthy individual, but he’s not above using intimidation to achieve his goals. An able charmer and persuader, if he had a shady past, there is now no way of discovering what it was.
Pablo de Valladolid, 1637
DON SEBASTIÁN DE MORRA
Initially acquired as companion and tutor for Baltasar Carlos, Philip’s only son by Elisabeth of France. When the young prince died at the age of 16, Don Sebastián was left with no official function and was apparently offered none. He joined with the other dwarfs at court as one of the bufones at royal entertainments — that, and drinking, being his only distractions. His aria may be considered as a letter home to an older brother of ‘normal’ stature, engaged in the plebeian task of trade in northern Spain. Sebastián uses his considerable gifts of mimicry to describe life at court and the people inhabiting it. He is relieved to have landed a situation where he is protected and cared for, but disgruntled at having his gifts and intelligence largely ignored. With no possibility of change in fortune, he is trapped between philosophical acceptance and a deep resentment.
Don Sebastián de Morra, 1645
Nicolasito, detail from Las Meninas
(soprano, trouser role)
On her nuptial journey from Vienna to Madrid to become the Queen of Spain by marrying her uncle, King Philip IV, the 16-year-old Mariana of Austria paused to be fêted in the Duchy of Milan, part of the Hapsburg empire at this time. There she was charmed by a very young and vivacious dwarf — Nicolás Pertusato. His parents, nobles at the Milanese court, made a “gift” of him to her and, flattered, she continued on to Madrid with him in her entourage, along with his Italian-speaking nursemaid. Nicolás’s parents claimed that he was born to them in their palazzo at nearby Alessandria, but neglected to give the future queen his birthdate, possibly because they did not know it. He was, they told her at the time of her visit in Milan, “just four”. It’s conceivable and even likely that Nicolás’s “parents” were not his birth parents but an aristocratic couple who had acquired him through questionable channels. Dwarfs, as anomalies of nature, were coveted by royalty; possession of Nicolás could easily lift an ambitious couple into higher social circles and royal favor. Having achieved this goal, the couple could then increase their status by making a gift of their son to the future Queen of Spain.
Some researchers claim that his surname Pertusato is the result of an error in transcription by court scribes, but it is arguable that Nicolás was born to fisherfolk on the Cap de Pertusato in southernmost Corsica; delivered by boat (for a price) to the mainland and thence to Genoa, where there was brisk trade in everything from fish and spices to slaves and dwarfs; and sold, if not to the titled couple from Alessandria, then to a middleman who swiftly made his way to the Duchy of Milan, where unusual human specimens were handsomely paid for. —All this to say, that it’s understandable that Nicolás (immediately dubbed Nicolasito by the teenage queen-to-be) never knew his birthdate. His dwarfism prevented anyone from hazarding more than a guess at his age. At the time of his aria in Los Bufones, he could have been 10 or 11. He remained a close companion to Queen Mariana, and to her daughter Margaret Theresa (born 18 months after the royal wedding), until the Queen acquired the German dwarf Maribárbola as nanny to the new daughter. Nicolasito, then, with no specific master or mistress, spent much of his youth running free throughout the Royal Alcázar, joining the other dwarfs to perform as a bufón at Court entertainments.
DON JUAN DE AUSTRIA
When Spain and Portugal were in dynastic union (1580-1640), he was born “Joao” in the eastern Portuguese municipality of Penamacor, fifth son (and seventh child) of a leather worker. When Spanish nobles inspecting the Castle of Penamacor praised the fine harnesses on the horses they were given to ride, Joao’s father boldly asked for, and received, permission to work under their patronage in Madrid. Once established in the Spanish capital and two more children had blessed the family, the youthful Joao (now giving himself the Spanish name Juan) spent less time learning his father’s trade and more time in public places, learning the guitar and befriending street entertainers, singing in the plazas where he always received a few coins. Soon old enough to enter taverns (and brothels) where his cocky attitude and gentle singing both amused and delighted, he attracted the attention of a few debauching nobles who jokingly introduced him to the Royal Court. Uncouth and naïve, unaware of the quiet hilarity he produced among the aristocracy, like a pickle nestled against roast venison, he soon became a fixture at court entertainments. It became an ongoing joke to provide him with increasingly lavish costumes for these events, and soon his extensive wardrobe was being furnished at royal expense. No one remembers (or recorded) how he came to be called the name of a Spanish naval hero of the previous century — probably the result of some ignorant comment he made on naval battles, having never in his life laid eyes on the ocean or any great body of water — but the name adhered, and he was only known at court, mockingly but politely, as "Don Juan de Austria." In time, completely estranged from both his family and his street friends, and the only actual “commoner” among the bufones, he grew more and more melancholy and uncomfortable with his position, although he continued to sing and entertain at court well into his 50s. Nicolasito befriended him, recognizing a kindred soul taking comfort in a foreign, non-Spanish past. Together they would plan amusements for royal performances.
El Bufón, "Don Juan de Austria", 1633
Don Diego de Acedo, 1645
DON DIEGO DE ACEDO
The official Keeper of the Seal and Undersecretary to His Majesty Philip IV, Don Diego was tasked with validating signatures on documents. With “el Primo” (the Cousin) added to his name in his portrait painted by Velázquez, he is speculated to have been an actual cousin of the King, although the nickname could as easily have been a jest of the painter’s, referring to the dwarf’s closeness to the King. Don Diego often traveled with the royal entourage on state excursions and inspections, receiving on one such occasion a wound to the forehead from the arquebus of a would-be assassin. The target of the attempt, seated next to Don Diego, was, according to some sources, the Count Duke Olivares, to other reports the King himself. The Palace Archives limit their records to administrative matters, so details of this assassination attempt are not to be found there. Don Diego recovered, and perhaps his large hat in the Velázquez portrait sits at an angle to hide the scar. Chroniclers of the time also record that an officer of the royal household, jealous of Don Diego’s position of intimacy with the King, killed the dwarf’s much beloved wife, and would have killed Don Diego, too, had he not left that morning for a promenade with the King. Don Diego, although endowed with the prestigious position of Undersecretary, being “an anomaly of nature” was not exempt from appearing with the other dwarfs as a bufón at court entertainments. He fulfilled this duty, as he did his more illustrious one, with dignity and with grace.
A German dwarf of prodigious intelligence, Maria Barbara Asquín (Asquen? Askim? – only the Hispanicized version of her name survives) came to the Spanish court after the death of her mistress the Condesa de Villerbal y Walther. She learned her basic Spanish by comparing Biblical texts in the two languages, and continued educating herself from there. Palace archives famously report that she received four pounds of snow every day in the summer, and also record the occasional additions to her wardrobe over the years. Immediately appropriated by the Queen, Maribárbola served as nanny and tutor to the Queen’s first child, the Infanta Margareta Teresa, grooming the daughter for her politically arranged marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I of Austria, who was also a relative. (Margareta Teresa, who became Holy Roman Empress by this marriage at age 16, had seven pregnancies, yielding three children who died in infancy and one surviving daughter, before she herself died at the age of 22.) Maribárbola remained at court, like most of the other dwarfs, with no greater role or function than mascot or entertainer. It is said that the King himself was intimidated by her outspokenness when in close quarters with her. After 40 years of service in the Alcázar, Maribárbola returned to Germany.
Maribárbola, detail from Las Meninas
Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez, 1656.
Velázquez painted his self-portrait at the easel.
The central figure is the Infanta Margareta Teresa at age five;
Maribárbola and Nicolasito are seen on the right.
The painting is on display in the Museo Nacional Del Prado,
along with the other portraits of the "bufones."