the case of this portrait, there are two conflicting
accounts of its genesis. Either it is a real portrait
- possibly of Margaret, countess of Tyrol, also
known as Margarete Maultasch ("Satchel-mouth")
- or it is a satire on old women trying to ape youthful
attractiveness. Again, either it is a copy of a
sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, or (now thought more
likely) Leonardo copied it. It was an inspiration
for Tenniel's Duchess in Alice in Wonderland.
While the children were quick to pounce on the grotesquerie
with headlines like Cover Up or Ugly Duchess, enjoying
the savage fun of the tabloid press, they were duly
remorseful and compassionate when they heard how
detective work has uncovered a medical reason for
the woman's strange appearance. On the other hand,
they were shocked to hear how far-reaching the powers
of a 16th-century ruler might be, and how rich compared
to most subjects.
Medical research on the subject of the painting
found she was suffering from an extremely rare form
of Paget's disease, osteitis deformans, a chronic
disorder which enlarges and deforms the bones. Paget's
disease is named after 19th-century British surgeon
Sir James Paget, who first described the illness.
Nevertheless, only a very powerful woman would have
the confidence to commission a portrait of herself
when she looked so unusual. There was surely the
intent to defy public opinion. In its way, then,
and of its time, a tabloid moment.
Here are two possible ways that today's newspapers
might have tackled Massys' subject's visit to London,
1 by Victoria Neumark
2 by Victoria Neumark