The Daily

On History

The Little Man of Nuremberg

March 17, 2016 | by

Wonder in the age of Matthias Buchinger.

A late sixteenth-century portrait of a disabled man, included in a Wunderkammer at Ambras Castle.

Though he had neither arms nor legs and was only twenty-nine inches tall, Matthias Buchinger spent his sixty-five years variously as a magician, a musician, a carver, and an inventor, among other vocations. But his most astounding talents were in micrography—that is, literally, small writing. Since his death in 1740, his renown has been relegated to an obscure niche between print design and outsider art. “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Inventive Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay,” showing now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rescues him from a seventeenth-century German wunderkammer of conjurers, carneys, witches and “freaks” endemic to early modernity. Accompanying the exhibition is the equally eccentric art-history and antiquarian memoir Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest Living German by Ricky Jay, Whose Peregrinations in Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are herein Revealed, in which Jay, something of a sleight-of-hand artist, reconstructs Buchinger’s exotic life and oeuvre. 

Born in 1674 to recently immigrant parents, the severely deformed Buchinger was presumed to have been sheltered from the public as a child before, around the age of twenty, he began to perform in earnest throughout the German states. Regarded as a sideshow and a prodigy, Buchinger courted his reputation by including the epithet “born without hands and feet” on nearly all of his various drawings and souvenir broadsides. He would impress audiences by using his malformed arms and legs to fire pistols, play dice and cards, perform expert legerdemain and serenade using proprietary musical instruments. Despite these incredible feats, it was his wondrous skill at micrography that most enraptured spectators and patrons. As a subset of calligraphy, micrography was thought to have originated in Antiquity and had been particularly popular within certain Hebraic traditions. It became more widespread in print design in the early modern era when advancements in industrialized microscopy enhanced the calligrapher’s technique for detail beyond the threshold of sight.

For all its connotations of the preternatural, wunder- is an appropriate descriptor for the milieu and medium in which the so-called little man conceived his curious works. Buchinger recognized as much in a letter he wrote to his English patron, the Earl of Oxford, which Jay excerpts toward the conclusion of his book:

I do believe there never was a person born without Hands or Feet that can do what I can and is likely there may never be another … [T]o the best of my Judgment it would be the greatest Curiosity that ever was in the World.

Fitting, then, that in the age when the wunderkammer became the exhibition space of the aristocrat and the sideshow the preferred plebian amusement, a limbless artist would achieve celebrity and wealth throughout Europe as the living embodiment of the curious and grotesque.

Buchinger with thirteen vignettes (signed Stamford, 1718/19?), 7 ½" x 11 ¾", printed from an engraving by Elias Beck, signed by Buchinger. (Collection of Ricky Jay, from Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Ricky Jay, published by Siglio, 2016.) Click to enlarge.

In pre-Enlightenment Germany—composed of small, often insular fiefdoms and principalities, further isolated by competing dogmas of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation—fears of religious heresy soon became accusations of diabolism and witchcraft. Hurriedly established ecclesiastical courts meted out summary executions to tens of thousands of “devil worshippers,” numbers that far exceeded in any other state in Europe. But other occult traditions, like carnival rituals, sideshow exhibitions, and feats of thaumaturgy, gained massive favor among these same populations of witch burners, who in the era’s relative prosperity sought spectacles beyond the home and the church.

“The public believed in invisible power at the same time that they accepted empirical rules of evidence,” the historian Barbara Benedict writes in Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. “In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, witches embody the fraying between public and private belief … Because they visually demonstrate invisible power, witches constitute a phenomenon that borders both empiricism and faith, curiosity and wonder.”

Likewise, the figure of the peripatetic balladeer (the more popular term carney came only in the Victorian era) was met with both suspicion and intrigue from the village spectator. Buchinger was an itinerant throughout his adult life, moving between the German states, England, France, and Ireland, and his peculiarity as an artist-for-hire was no doubt exaggerated by his dwarfism, a deformity often viewed as a divine portent by superstitious audiences. During the witch trials, the disabled and deformed were sometimes singled out and burned for fear their ominous appearance was a mark of the diabolical pact.

A drawing of the seventeenth-century wunderkammer of Ferdinando Cospi, with Cospi and Sebastiano Biavati.

By the seventeenth century, however, dwarfism was a popular curiosity. Jay describes diminutive characters like Hans Worrenburg (known to travel in a small box to hide his tiny stature from potential spectators) and Marco Catozo, whose deformities made them sideshow celebrities. He also reproduces a seventeenth-century plate depicting the wunderkammer of Bolognese aristocrat Ferdinando Cospi, curated by the dwarf Sebastiano Biavati, who tended to and exhibited himself as part of the museum. Similarly, the wunderkammer of Archduke Ferdinand II’s Ambras Castle included among its vast inventory Painting of a Man with a Disability, traced to the latter half of the sixteenth century and depicting a “jester” lying prone without the use of his atrophied legs. These examples of anatomical grotesquerie linked the wunderkammer to its more vulgar equivalent in the medieval practice of displaying monstrosities.

“Marvels and secrets became the currency of courtly science,” writes Bengt Ankarloo et al. in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 4: The Period of the Witch Trials:

Natural magic helped to promote the keen interest in the setting up of Wunderkammern that typified courtly and aristocratic notions of power and knowledge in this period. The political purpose of all this was to represent the prince “as a repository of praeternatural, superhuman secrets, and as the rightful heir to a tradition of esoteric and hidden wisdom” that provided authority and control.

Buchinger’s transient lifestyle was predicated on performances and sales of his calligraphic works, but he, too, was funded by noble patronage throughout Europe (including a young Louis XV and George I) in exchange for commissioned drawings. Prized above all were his highly detailed portraits, architectural renderings, family trees, and religious texts, many of which were interpolated with mirrored and upturned writing as well as micrographic scripts.

Jay reproduces a number of Buchinger’s micrographic drawings, including that of a Grecian altar inscribed with the Ten Commandments and filigreed with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed (1717); a rendering of Queen Anne portrayed in an oval under which Baroque spirals are revealed to be three entire chapters of the Book of Kings, which continue in the curls of her hair (1718); and, perhaps, most famously, an engraving of a self-portrait on a pillow in which the strands of Buchinger’s wig are composed of transcriptions of the seven Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer (1724).

The high value conferred upon such pieces testifies not only to Buchinger’s renown as a calligrapher but to the curious mystery surrounding his gifts. His ability to perform marvelous feats from deformity embodies those “magical” precepts, outlined in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1531), that have come to represent the predominant classifications of Renaissance epistemology. “[Magic] instructs us in the way things differ and agree with each other,” wrote Agrippa, the epitome of the pre-Enlightenment occultist. “It also joins and knits firmly together compatible inferior objects by means of the power of virtues of superior bodies. This is the most perfect and principal branch of knowledge, a sacred and more lofty kind of philosophy, and the most absolute perfection of every most excellent philosophy.”

Stewart-Denham family tree drawn by Matthias Buchinger , 1729, ink on vellum, 12" x 16". From the collection of Ricky Jay. Click to enlarge.

A self-portrait of Buchinger (detail), 1724, stipple engraving, 7 ½" x 11 5/8". From the collection of Ricky Jay. Click to enlarge.

The time and place of Buchinger’s death have been disputed over the intervening two centuries, but Jay pinpoints it to sometime in August, 1739, in Cork. Buchinger’s permanent move from the German states to Britain suggests the continued popularity of monstrosities and medical oddities in English popular culture. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, immense events like London’s Bartholomew Fair and the Lord Mayor’s parade to Westminster Hall defined the golden age of the carnival “freak show,” a term only popularized in the Victorian era. Buchinger’s British residency also marks the start of a transition: from the Continental valorization of the curiosity to an English model favoring the empirical sciences. Later exhibitions of oddity and disability appealed more to clinical paradigms than to occult or cosmological ciphers.

In the way it exhumes a pre-Enlightenment eccentric, Jay’s The Greatest Living German provides a much-needed introduction to a valuable, lost wunderkammer. But Jay’s work is also a polymathic replica of the zeitgeist of languages and wonders in which Buchinger lived and worked. At his most curious, Buchinger, “born without hands and feet,” reminds modern readers of an age when art was still considered the province of divinity and magic.

Erik Morse is the 2015 recipient of the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. He is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is also a lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles.