Antonio da Trento, known as Nanino (Little Dwarf), belonged to the court of the Marquis of Mantua. There is a letter written in dialect in 1495 from Nanino to the Marquis, Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519). In a letter dated 24 July 1512, from the Marquis to the dwarf, he gets a dressing down from the boss, as it seems he’s pushed the bounds of decorum.
Little Dwarf, we have heard of your bad behaviour and of how much presumption and temerity you showed in striking the company and addressing villainous words to them, from which it appears you are no better than that Schips is. However, may we remind you that we have irons, manacles and muzzles for your needs, and shortly, if God wills that we find ourselves together, we will find a remedy for your insolence. Master Christopher will say other things at greater length to your face on our behalf, and so we won’t write them to you, but you will take heed of them as if they come directly from us.
Nanino, havemo inteso li mali portamenti toi lì et quanta prosumptione et temerità usi in battere li compagni et dirgli di villane parole, onde ni pare che tu non sei niente megliore li di quello che è Schips quà. Però ti recordamo che havemo ferri, manette et musarole per il bisogno tuo et di brevi se Dio vorà ni trovaremo insieme et ni sforzaremo trovare remedio all insolentia tua. Altre cose più diffusamente a bocca ti dirà maestro Christophoro da parte nostra, che non ti serivemo, al quale prestarai fede quanto a noi medesimo.
We don’t know who ‘Schips’ is, to whom Nanino is unfavourably compared, perhaps another dwarf or jester. We also don’t know whether the dire threats were carried out (my guess is that it’s unlikely, given a general climate of indulgence towards court dwarfs) or whether the reprimand reined in his behaviour.
There was a near obsession in Renaissance courts, perhaps particularly in Spain and Italy, for having dwarfs. Their status was similar to, and often overlapped with, that of court jesters. Which is not to say that all dwarfs were jesters, any more than the contrary, simply that it is no surprise when a dwarf turns out to be a jester. And while the dwarf-craze was notable for a few centuries in Europe, China also has a number of well-known jesters who were dwarfs, and there are hints of similar roles for dwarfs in ancient Egypt. We’ll come back to this.
Source: quoted in Luzio, A. and R. Renier, ‘Buffoni, Nani e Schiavi dei Gonzaga ai Tempi di Isabella d’Este’, Estr. Nuova Ant., series 3 (1891), 3, XXXV, pp. 132, trans. by William Dolby.
Image credit: copper engraving (c. 1600) of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, by Aliprando Caprioli, in Aliprando Caprioli, Philippe Thomassin & Jean Turpin, Ritratti di cento capitani illustri con li lor fatti in guerra (Roma: Domenico Gigliotti/Philippe Thomassin & Jean Turpin, 1596/1600), Municipal Library of Trento