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Memoirs of Josef Boruwlaski - The Last Court Dwarf


The Last Court Dwarf
by Armand Leroi

            FROM THE WALLS OF THE PRADO, the Louvre and the National Gallery they stare balefully at us. As depicted by Velazquez, Argenti, Bronzino, Carracci, Van Dyck and another dozen now forgotten painters, the court dwarfs stand clad in rich and elaborate dress, miniature daggers at their sides, surrounded by the other possessions of rich and powerful men. In one painting, a princeling stands next to a dwarf, the better to display the boy's youthful elegance. In another, a dwarf is placed next to a glossy, pedigreed hound. The man's shoulders are level with the dog's withers.

            'Towards the end of the seventeenth century,' wrote Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 'It was necessary to dream up amusements of a special sort for the leisure of princes and it was to dwarfs that fell the sad privilege of serving as the toys of the world's grandees.' But the court dwarfs were older than that. Most of the paintings that depict them date from a century earlier. Catherine de Medici (1519-89) had set the fashion. In the hope of breeding a race of miniature humans she had arranged a marriage between a pair of dwarfs. A few years later, the Electress of Brandenburg tried the same thing, but both couples proved childless. Peter the Great took the amusement to its extreme. In 1701 he staged a wedding between two dwarfs to which he invited not only his courtiers, but also the ambassadors of all the foreign powers posted to his capital. He also ordered all dwarfs within two hundred miles to attend. A dozen small men and women rode into the capital on the back of a single horse, trailed by a jeering mob. At court some of the dwarfs, perceiving that they were there to he ridiculed, refused to take part in the fun. Peter made them serve the others.

            Were all the court dwarfs unhappy, degraded creatures stripped of all human dignity? Geoffroy, writing in 1832 thought so. So had Buffon fifty years earlier. Joseph Boruwlaski, however, would not have agreed. For him, being small was a gift. an opportunity. It had lifted him out of obscurity.

            The Boruwlaskis were poor. Joseph was only nine years old when his father died, leaving the family destitute. Eighteenth-century rural Poland was, however, a profoundly feudal society in which patronage counted for all; Boruwlaski's mother had a patron, a young local noblewoman, the Staorlina de Caorliz. Charmed by the young Joseph, she prevailed upon his mother to send the boy to live with her so that he could be educated. Boruwlaski thrived in his new home. By his early teens he was only 61 centimetres (two feet) tall, but he had acquired graces that would not have shamed the most noble of Polish youths. Things became a bit difficult for Boruwlaski when the Staorlina got married and had a child, but even then he had an eye for a good thing. He became the protégé of another, even wealthier, aristocratic woman, the Comtesse de Humiecka. It was the making of him. For the Comtesse was not one to linger in the obscurity of provincial Poland; she had a yen for travel and for society. Bundling Boruwlaski into a carriage, she set out to conquer the courts of Europe.

            Vienna, 1754. 'What,' asked Marie-Theresa. 'is the most remarkable thing in this room?' Boruwlaski gazed about the rococo splendours of the Schönbrunn. but knew the answer. 'The most remarkable thing in this room is the sight of a little man in the lap of a great woman.' Her Imperial Majesty, Empress of all Austria and Hungary, was delighted. In Munich, Prince Kaunitz offered Boruwlaski a pension for life. In Lunéville the exiled Stanislaus, King of the Poles, professed himself delighted by his conversation -- so much more interesting than that of his own court dwarf, an unhappy youth by the name of Bébé. The Comte de Treffan was also there, making notes for his article Nain in the Encyclopédie. In Paris Boruwlaski stayed with the Duc d'Orleans; at The Hague he had an audience with the Prince Stadholder. At Versailles the teenage Marie Antoinette gave him a diamond ring front her very own finger.

            Ten brilliant years passed in this manner. And then Boruwlaski fell in love. He paid his court to an actress. She rejected him with scorn. Years later he would write: 'If I can upbraid nature with having refused me a body like that of other men, she has made me ample amends, by endowing me with a sensibility which, it is true, displayed itself rather late, but, even in my constitutional warmth, spread a taint of happiness, the remembrance of which I enjoy with gratitude and a feeling heart.' But by then he could reflect on his youthful passion with calm. For he had long won the heart of another, a dark-eyed young noblewoman named Isalina Borboutin. She too had laughed at him, toyed with him, treated him like a child. But he persisted. He wrote to her, often and passionately. He petitioned the King of Poland for a pension so that he could support her. He was given one and a title as well: she relented.

            Joseph Boruwlaski died in his sleep on 5 December 1837 in the quiet English cathedral town of Durham. He had had a happy life, a rich life. Born into obscurity, he had achieved dizzying social heights. Famed for his conversation and his skill with the violin, he had known most of the crowned heads of Europe. Ennobled by the King of the Poles, he had also won the patronage of the Prince of Wales. He could call the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire his friends. He was an ornament of Durham; its council paid him merely to live there. He had married a noble beauty, raised a family and, when he died at the distinguished age of ninety-eight, had outlived nearly all his contemporaries. It was a graceful end to a remarkable life. For Joseph, le Comte de Boruwlaski, was not merely any Continental aristocrat exiled from his homeland. He was the last of the court dwarfs.


© Armand Marie Leroi 2003.

Quoted with permission, which is gratefully acknowledged.


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