During the middle ages and into the Renaissance, birth abnormalities were viewed with fear and suspicion. Occasionally a human or animal baby was born with extreme deformities, and this monstrous birth was considered a rare and important omen, signifying any number of things. A two-headed baby girl might be a sign that society needed to amend their ways. Likewise, a boy born with a goat head might be a punishment to a community for miserly tithing.
A monstrous birth could simultaneously foreshadow a godly punishment, and specifically punish an individual household or mother. Renaissance medical knowledge was rather limited, and doctors viewed the mother as at least partly responsible for an abnormal birth. Undoubtedly she had transferred her impurities or negative thoughts into the fetus.
An Infant’s Omen
In early 1512, near the Italian city of Ravenna, a baby was born with a severe congenital disorder. The earliest account of the birth is from March 8, 1512. The diarist Sebastiano di Branca Tedallini recorded that news of the strange birth had reached Pope Julius II. He wrote that the child was born from the union of a nun and a friar, and had a horned head, the letters YXV on its chest, with one leg hairy and cloven-hooved like a pig, and the other leg containing a human eye.
By March 11, word had reached Florence, and details had already began to shift in retellings. Apothecary Luca Landucci described the baby as having a single horn, bat wings, hermaphroditic genitalia, a clawed left foot like an eagle, and an eye on its right knee. Subsequently historian Pietro Martire d’Anghiera wrote that the child was the illegitimate birth of a married mother.
Abnormal infants were commonly abandoned and left to die in the middle ages and Renaissance. By order of Pope Julius II the “Monster of Ravenna” was starved to death. Nevertheless, even in death the strangeness of the infant continued to be of interest. As time passed, descriptions of the birth mostly merged two legs into one.
The birth immediately became a convenient political tool as well. Europe was on the cusp of the Protestant Reformation. Both Catholic supporters and critics saw omens of biblical punishment for each other in the “monster”. A text published by Franciscan Johann Nas directly compares Martin Luther to the Monster of Ravenna. Protestant woodcuts of the child depicted it in a Florentine convent, the scandalous offspring of a nun and the Pope himself.
Less than a month after the birth a major battle took place in Ravenna, with French forces fighting against the Papal State. The Monster of Ravenna became an omen of the suffering that occurred during the battle, and a direct sign of God’s wrath in the form of Louis XII’s army.
The horn [indicates] pride; the wings, mental frivolity and inconstancy; the lack of arms, a lack of good works; the raptor’s foot, rapaciousness, usury, and every sort of avarice; the eye on the knee, a mental orientation solely toward earthly things; the double sex, sodomy. And on account of these vices, Italy is shattered by the sufferings of war, which the King of France has not accomplished by his own power, but only as the scourge of God.Johannes Multivallis, Eusebii Caesariensis episcopi chronicon, 1512
When we first discovered the images in Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (1557) we found them comical, until we realized that they are based in truth. It’s saddening to know that these illustrations may be depictions of actual people that lived tragic and often very short lives. On the other hand, the images are most certainly fantastical caricatures based upon hearsay and inaccurate embellished descriptions. We think there is a value in highlighting and preserving art like this.
We cleaned up and vectorized the above two illustrations of the Monster of Ravenna, as well as a few dozen more documented monstrous births and other human abnormalities. Check out the collection below!