Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Monster of Ravenna

A monster was said to have been born at Ravenna, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It was described with a horn on its head, straight up like a sword, and instead of arms it had two wings like a bat. On the height of its breasts it had a Y-shaped mark on one side and a cross on the other. At the waist there were two serpents, and it was a hermaphrodite. The right knee had an eye, and its left foot was like an eagle.

A later account of this being was published in 1906:

A Famous Monster

An Old Time Wonder That Had an Eye In Its Knee

In the writings of both Licetus and Zahn may be found descriptions and illustrations of a monster born at Ravenna, Italy, in the year 1511 or 1512, the exact date being somewhat uncertain. This monster had a body and shoulders like those of a young woman. There was but one leg, gradually tapering from the hips down and terminating in an immense scaled claw, like that of a turkey buzzard. There were fourd toes, each tipped with a bony nail, three of them pointing to the left and one to the right. The creature had wings in place of arms and always held them in an erect position, as though ready to take flight at the slightest provocation. From the hips to the single knee the flesh was covered with large, well arranged feathers. From the knee joint to the foot the leg was scaled, like that of the common barnyard fowl, the spot where the feathers left off and the scales commenced being marked with a large lidless eye, which seemed to be altogether incapable of involuntary motion. The neck, head and general outlines of the face were those of woman, but the ears were large and set very low, almost on the neck.

The head was covered with a queer mixture of scales, feathers and hair, but the oddity of the whole upper story was a pointed horn, which rose just in the edge of the hair on the center of the forehead. This horn was three inches in length, and, according to Zahn, even a farmer would have mistaken it for the horn of a two-year old heifer had it been removed and shown to him.

The old time wonder mongers all give pictures and descriptions of this horned Italian monster, but none tells how long it lived or what was done with the body after death. - Indiana Weekly Messenger, Indiana, Pennsylvania - 7 March 1906


In March 1512, a Florentine apothecary named Lucca Landucci was writing his diary. War had come to northern Italy. Maximillian of Germany and Louis XII of France were locked in combat with the Spanish, English and Pope Julius II for control of the Venetian Republic. Ravenna was ravaged and fell eighteen days after the monster's birth. 'It was evident,' wrote Landucci, 'what evil the monster had meant for them! It seems as if some great misfortune always befalls the city when such things are born.'

Landucci's account is of a drawing that was on public display in Florence, after the monster had been starved to death by order of Julius II. Printed woodcuts and engravings spread the news of the monster throughout Europe. The monster acquired a new, posthumous, existence. When it left Ravenna it had two legs; by the time it arrived in Paris it had only one. In some prints it had bat wings, in others they were more like a bird's; it had hermaphrodite genitalia. It became mixed up with the images of another monster born in Florence in 1506, and then fused with a medieval icon of sinful humanity called 'Frau Welt' - a kind of bat-winged, single-legged beast who grasped the globe in her talons.

As the monster travelled it continued to mutate. Italians took it as a warning of the horrors of war. Some said that it was the child of a respectable married woman; others that it was the product of a union between a nun and a friar. But it seems likely that it was simply a child who was born with a severe, rare, but quite unmysterious genetic disorder. One can even hazard a guess at Roberts's Syndrome, a deformity found in children who are born with an especially destructive mutation. That, at least, would account for the limb and genital anomalies, if not the two serpents on its waist and the supernumerary eye on its knee. - Histoires prodigieuses (édition de 1561)


Described, among others, by Ambroise Paré, this being was meant to have been born in Italy in 1512, contemporaneous with the bloody Battle of Ravenna, in which King Louis XII and Pope Julius engaged in combat. It survived to grow into a hulking brute which, naturally enough, terrorized the countryside. It was considered an omen of God's anger with the Italian people and, as such, it various disjointed parts could be "read" metaphorically. The arms never developed, scholars claimed, because the Italians showed a conspicuous lack of good deeds. Because the Italians had no firm dedication to any cause, their fickle, flighty nature was reflected in the Monster's wings. The beast was a biological hermaphrodite, and its double set of genitals illustrated sexual immorality: lust, sodomy, bestiality. The great ugly claw was greed, and the knee-mounted eyeball betrayed a covetous love of material things; the single horn-- overweening pride. The only positive side to this scaly abomination, which was in fact not always mentioned (note its exclusion from the above illustration), was a cruciform marking on the beast's trunk. This, of course, was interpreted as Christ's willingness to save all His people-- if they would only reform. - Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body

Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750

Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy

On Monsters and Marvels