The “silent study of art”: the deaf artists of the Renaissance
The Renaissance period was a remarkably fecund time in the art world, and where prelingually deaf people could build a successful career. Rosamund Oates explores the lives of some of the deaf men around Europe who learned how to express themselves, and communicate, through their art
In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci left Florence, where he had begun his career around a decade earlier, and headed for Milan. There, he received a commission for an altarpiece – the Virgin on the Rocks – which he produced with a couple of local artists, brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis. It was while staying with the de Predis family that Leonardo met another artistic son, Cristoforo.
Unlike his brothers, Cristoforo de Predis preferred to work in miniature, and became famous for producing elaborately illuminated books. He was also prelingually deaf. Known by contemporaries as being ‘deaf and dumb’, it meant that he used signs and gestures to communicate – and these made an impression on Leonardo. In notes later published as A Treatise on Painting, he observed how expressive sign language could be, and encouraged artists to study the “motions” of deaf people who “speak with movements of their hands, and eyes, and eyebrows, and their whole person in the desire to express the idea that is in their minds.”
Cristoforo’s career as a deaf painter was unusual, but far from unique in Renaissance Europe. In Rome, another deaf painter named Pinturicchio had recently been working on frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, before later moving on to decorate the Borgia apartments in the Vatican. Originally from Umbria, Italy, he had lost his hearing as a young child and so communicated in signs, sometimes being known as Sordicchio (roughly meaning ‘little deaf man’). As well as high-profile commissions in Rome, Pinturicchio’s career took him to Siena and Perugia.
And neither was the success of deaf artists confined to just Italy. One of the most prominent artists in 16th-century Spain was Juan Fernández Navarrete, who, in 1568, was appointed as the court painter for Philip II and worked on the king’s magnificent palace, El Escorial. Better known as ‘El Mudo’ (‘the Mute’), Navarrete trained in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, before returning to Madrid. In the Netherlands, one of the leading artists of landscape painting in the Dutch Golden Age was prelingually deaf: Hendrik Avercamp. Specialising in winter landscapes, he enjoyed enormous success during his lifetime as his pieces were some of the most expensive paintings on sale in Amsterdam.
What made art an attractive career for prelingually deaf people?
In part, it was because it could be taught by sight. Across Europe, prelingually deaf children tended to be steered towards practical trades that they could learn primarily by observation. In early modern England, deaf boys regularly apprenticed as tailors and blacksmiths, but for those from wealthier families, a suitable alternative was to study with an artist. In 1654, William Gaudy – heir to extensive estates in Norfolk – arranged for his eldest son, John, who was deaf, to train with local artist Matthew Snelling.
The rest of the family were sceptical, especially John’s grandfather who was reluctant to cover the cost and argued that since John “was speechless there is no more to be expected from him”. But he was overruled, and John was soon joined by his younger brother Framlingham, who was also deaf. Eventually, the brothers went to London to train in the studios of Sir Peter Lely (by then court painter to King Charles II).
Copying was an important element of artistic training during this period; and it was a method of teaching well suited to the Gawdy brothers. Snelling would send the older John pictures to work from, including one of the “Princess Royals” that he himself was “copying to the knees”. At one point, John hit a creative wall while Snelling was away, to which the tutor told John’s father to make him “follow that pattern I set him”, before promising that he had “very fine things for him to draw at my coming hence”.
A major hindrance to prelingually deaf children, and indeed children able to hear, was that the training of an artist was an expensive business. When John moved to London, for example, the Gawdy family paid the modern equivalent of around £17,000 a year for his tutoring, plus accommodation costs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the deaf artists known to us came from wealthy families. Juan Fernández Navarrete and Hendrik Avercamp both had affluent backgrounds, as did Benjamin Ferrers, a prelingually deaf man who studied at the artistic academy set up by leading portrait painter Godfrey Kneller. Another deaf man, Richard Crosse, attended the Drawing School established by William Shipley in the 1750s, having come from a gentry family in Devon.
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Deaf people could use drawing to ease their day-to-day interactions. John Dight, a book binder in 17th-century Exeter, carried a notebook in which he drew pictures when people did not understand his sign language. The younger Gawdy brother, Framlingham, always carried chalks and other drawing equipment to help him communicate. It seems that drawing was also a significant part of deaf education, since notebooks surviving from the 17th and 18th centuries demonstrate how teachers used pictures to help deaf children to learn to read and write.
Throughout the early modern period, there were still doubts about how far prelingually deaf people could be held fully accountable in law, with a widespread perception of them as “infants” as a result of not speaking vocally. Therefore, art became a powerful way for deaf people to demonstrate their capacity for rational thought.
Between 1710 and 1720, Benjamin Ferrers had to fight several court cases in order to claim his inheritance, finally being declared “capable” of managing his affairs in the Court of Chancery. He then appeared in the Court of Common Pleas, where several of his paintings were produced as further evidence that he was of “good understanding”, and so he was allowed to inherit his property. In the following year, Ferrers painted one of his best-known paintings, The Court of Chancery during the reign of George I.
How were such artists received at the time, and what is their legacy today?
There was a belief in Renaissance Europe that prelingually deaf people were actually more likely to be good artists than hearing people, since one of their senses – in this instance, sight – would ‘compensate’ for their lack of hearing. In a poem celebrating Benjamin Ferrers after his death 1732, Vincent Bourne argued that his deafness allowed him to dedicate his whole life to the “silent study of art”. Leonardo da Vinci argued that deaf people could “understand every accident of human bodies better than anyone who can speak and hear”.
All of these artists – which account for only a small proportion of the many prelingually deaf artists, recently identified by art historians Angelo lo Conte and Barbara Kaminsky – forged successful careers at a time of artistic innovation. Their works can still be seen in galleries across Europe. They worked as painters, enamellers, sometimes teachers, and their legacy is a permanent record of the contributions that deaf people made to Renaissance culture.
Dr Rosamund Oates is a reader in early modern history at Manchester Metropolitan University, currently working on a history of deafness in England in this period and leading the Cultures of Disability research cluster
This piece was supported by the Leverhulme Trust. Many of the artists discussed have works on display in the Deaf Heritage Centre in Manchester: www.bdhs.org.uk
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