Velazquez, Diego (Spanish, 1599-1660)

The Buffoon Sebastian de Morra

Reference Type:
The Spanish court was fascinated by physical abnormalities, and kept people with conditions such as dwarfism as figures for entertainment, rather like pets. If they were wise, by behaving like idiots they often played the role of court jester, which allowed them to speak freely, criticize the court, and mock authority. Many became royal sidekicks and prodigies. Don Sebastian de Morra was in the service of a royal prince, who liked him enough to remember him in his will. But the fact that dwarves were human beings with feelings was often ignored, and they had to deal with cutting comments and serving as the butt of practical jokes. It was even a form of mockery to provide a dwarf with a grandiose name like Don Sebastián de Morra. An individual portrait such as this might imply that de Morra had privileged status; however, no formal portrait would have a person of status seated on the floor. His position places the dwarf “below us” in more ways than one—a victim of our curiosity and gaze. However, court painter Diego Velazquez represented him with a complicated demeanor that is hard to define—what is he thinking? How does the way he meets our gaze make us feel? Notes by Mariann Smith
Psycho-social Relationships
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid