Deformities of the Hapsburgs

Switzerland was so incredible, I wound up spending about twice as long there as I had intended. I could have stayed twice as long again, but Austria beckoned!

My first destination in Austria was the mountain city of Innsbruck. People make an awfully big deal of the mountains surrounding Innsbruck, but after the scenery I had just come from in Switzerland, I thought Innsbruck’s little mountains pretty unremarkable. I guess I’m jaded. Or elitist.

But I didn’t need mountains, because now I was back in a city filled with history! I visited two royal residences in Innsbruck: the Hofburg Palace which was a seat of the 18th century Habsburgs, and Castle Ambras, seat of the 14th, 15th, and 16th century Habsburgs. One of the most interesting things I found was the Hapsburg Portrait Gallery in the Castle Ambras.

After gazing at hundreds of portraits of this massive and incestuous family spanning the 14th through the 17th centuries, I began to notice something… Most of these people were massively unattractive.

But I don’t think I’m being too harsh on their looks. Think about this: paintings, unlike photographic portraits today, are a great medium for hiding flaws, because each detail is controlled and reproduced by the hand of an individual who is being paid tons of money to portray the subject in the best light possible. For instance, we know that most people in renaissance and baroque Europe, even of the aristocracy, had terrible hygiene by modern standards, and that in the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance, perfume and makeup literally replaced bathing. I’m not kidding. Bathing went out of fashion, so if you smelled, you just kept deodorizing and spritzing (the reason that the French developed the reputation that one could smell their copiously-applied perfume long before you saw them). Nevertheless, most of these people look quite good in their portraits. No acne, generally shapely bodies, comely faces, etc.

But these Habsburgs, despite what must have been the best efforts of their court painters, still manage to look marvelously hideous.

I took photos of some of the choicest examples:

Maybe it’s hard to see, but if you look closely you can see that one eye is not only lazy, but also is sort of.. messed up in the pupil.

She too has one eye larger and higher than the other, a small but weak-looking mouth, and a pronouncedly hooked nose. And, well… let’s not talk about her outfit. In my opinion, the 17th century was one of the low-points of European fashion.

I don’t even really know where to begin… With her receding hairline, or her apparent rosacea?

I guess there’s no thing actually wrong with her, just that her face is unusually pointy, and again there’s something a little off about her eyes…

Now, I’m no expert on the Habsburgs, but I know several things: They were an enormous family, with several significant branches that eventually ruled most of the major courts of Europe; They were very adept at arranging strategic marriages to maintain and increase their power; at some point, they controlled so much of Europe that the only logical monarchs with whom to marry and breed were… other Habsburgs, and this is succinctly why the Habsburgs, peaking in the latter 16th century, started to show their inbreeding by producing heirs who were increasingly physically deformed and mentally unstable.

One of the most distinctive family traits was the famous “Habsburg jaw.” I’m sorry I can’t tell you precisely who this is, but you know he’s a Habsburg because, well… look at his freaking jaw!!!

And of course, when a man with a huge jaw breeds with a woman who has a large jaw…

Mariana of Austria

They produce a child with… an even larger jaw.

King Charles II of Spain, son of Mariana of Austria and Philip III of Spain.

I present to you King Charles II of Spain, possibly the most unfit ruler Europe has ever seen, and a tragic consequence of dynastic inbreeding. According to accounts, Charles II’s jaw was so large that he had difficulty chewing, and his tongue was so large and thick that it was difficult to understand when he spoke. But this was not all. Charles was also epileptic and physically deformed (of course you can see his face in the portrait, but his body was all out of sorts as well, due to a spinal defect), and, shall we say… slow. He did not learn to speak until age four, and did not walk until he was almost eight. Genomists have studied his ancestors and concluded that almost 25% of his genes were homozygous, about the amount that would be expected from the marriage of a brother and sister.

I’m so pleased by this picture: Charles II’s marble bust, in profile. I rest my case.

He was also, of course, sterile. But this didn’t keep him from trying to produce an heir with two wives. Those poor, poor ladies… D:

Here’s another gem, Charles II’s great-uncle, Don Carlos of Asturias:

Here we have another mentally unstable individual with pronounced physical deformities. He died before he could succeed his father Philip II to the Spanish throne. According to his ancestry, he had only four great-grandparents, where he should have eight, and only six great-great grandparents, where he should have sixteen. Womp womp. 😦

And to finish off, I want to stick to my guns and reassert that the 17th century was a fashion-tragedy. I love historical costume and fashion, but even I have to ask, “How did people ever think this was attractive?!”

Some gems:

I should probably put something here about “Those poor people, it’s not their fault their family waged war in the marriage bed and didn’t yet know about genetics. They’re a product of the times – it’s not their fault!” So, okay, I acknowledge that, but these people also had it all: they were born fabulously wealthy and everyone had to do what they said. It’s a much better fate than if they had been born poor, where they would be ridiculed and probably considered the village idiot, would be unemployable and probably end up homeless begging for their food. Of course I know being king is not an easy task, and the wise man is probably he who doesn’t want to be king. So let’s not get into the discussion about the relative merits of a system that grants absolute power to an individual simply because they were born to the right parents, even if they’re the least qualified person in the world for the job of ruling… Oy vey.

And all that being said, I would still pick being a princess over any other possible occupation.

More posts on the Habsburgs and Austria coming soon! They’re a fascinating family!

OH bonus, totally forgot about that awesome time when 30 Rock parodied the hyper-inbreeding of the Habsburgs: