ROLL UP! ROLL UP! The great phenomenon of nature, the smallest woman in the world, 70 cm tall, 57 years old, weighing 5 Kg. RITA FANARI, from UXELLUS. She has been blind since the age of 14 and yet she threads yarn throug a needle, she sews, and all this in the presence of the public. She responds to any query. Every day at all hours you can see this great phenomenon.
So read the 1907 billboard announcing the debut on the scene of Rita Fanari. Unfortunately it was not a prestigious stage, but a sideshow at the Santa Reparata fair in the small town of Usellus (Oristano), at the time a very remote town in Sardinia, a community of just over a thousand souls. Rita shared her billboard – and perhaps even the stage – with a taxidermy of a two-headed lamb: we can suppose that whoever made that poster added it because he doubted that the tiny woman, alone, would be able to fascinate the gaze of passers-by… So right from the start, little Rita’s career was certainly not stellar.
Rita Fanari was born on 26 January 1850, daughter of Appolonia Pilloni and Placito Fanari. She suffered from pituitary dwarfism, and her sight abandoned her during adolescence; she lived with her parents until in 1900, when they probably died and she was adopted, at the age of fifty, by the family of Raimondo Orrù. This educated and wealthy man exhibited her in various fairs and village festivals including that of Santa Croce in Oristano. Since she had never found a husband, Rita used to appear on stage wearing the traditional dress for bagadia manna (elderly unmarried woman), and over time she gained enough notoriety to even enter vernacular expressions: when someone sang with a high-pitched voice, people used to mock them by saying “mi paris Arrita Fanài cantendi!” (“You sound like Rita Fanari singing!”).
Rita died in 1913. Her life might seem humble, as negligible as her own stature. A blind little woman, who managed to survive thanks to the interest of a landowner who forced her to perform at village fairs: a person not worthy of note, mildly interesting only to those researching local folklore. One of the “last”, those people whose memory is fogotten by history.
Yet, on closer inspection, her story is significant for more than one reason. Not only she was the only documented case of a Sardinian woman suffering from dwarfism who performed at a sideshow; Rita Fanari was also a rather unusual case for Italy in those years. Let’s try to understand why.
Among all congenital malformations, dwarfism has always attracted particular attention over the centuries. People suffering from this growth deficiency, often considered a sign of good luck and fortune (or even divine incarnations, as apparently was the case among the Egyptians), sometimes enjoyed high favors and were in great demand in all European courts. Owning and even “collecting” dwarfs became an obsession for many rulers, from Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine de’ Medici to the Tsar Peter the Great — who in 1710 organized the scandalous “wedding of dwarfs” I mentioned in this article (Italian only).
The public exhibition of Rita Fanari should therefore not surprise us that much, especially if we think of the success that human wonders were having in traveling circuses and amusement parks around the world. A typical American freak show consisted exactly in what Fanari did: the deformed person would sit on the stage, ready to satisfy the curiosity and answer questions from the spectators (“she responds to any query“, emphasized Rita’s poster).
Yet in the early 1900s the situation in Italy was different compared to the rest of the world. Only in Italian circuses, in fact, the figure of the dwarf clown had evolved into that of the “bagonghi”.
The origin of this term is uncertain, and according to some sources it comes from the surname of a Bolognese chestnut street seller who was 70 centimeters high and who in 1890 was hired by the Circus Guillaume. However, this nickname soon became a generic name identifying a unique act in the circus world. The bagonghi was not a simple “midget clown”, but a complete artist:
The bagonghi does not merely display his deformity, he performs – leaping, juggling, jesting; and he needs, therefore, like any other actor or clown, talent, devotion and long practice of his art. But he also must be from the beginning monstrous and afflicted, which is to say, pathetic. Indeed, there is a pop mythology dear to Italian journalists which insists on seeing all bagonghi as victims of their roles.
(L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, 1978)
A few examples: the bagonghi Giuseppe Rambelli, known as Goliath, was an acrobat as well as an equestrian vaulter; Andrea Bernabè, born in Faenza in 1850, performed as an acrobat on the carpet, a magician, a juggler; Giuseppe Bignoli, born in 1892 – certainly the most famous bagonghi in history – was considered one of the best acrobatic riders tout court, so much so that many circuses were fighting for the chance to book him.
After the war Francesco Medori and Mario Bolzanella, both employed in the Circo Togni, became famous; the first, a skillful stunter, died trying to tame a terrible fire in 1951; the second hit the headlines when he married Lina Traverso, who was also a little person, and above all when the news brok that a jealous circus chimpazee had scratched the bride in the face. A comic and grotesque scene, perfectly fitting with the classical imagery of the bagonghi, who
can be considered as a sort of Harlequin born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, and that quickly became a typical character, like those of the commedia dell’arte. The bagonghi is therefore a sort of modern masked “type” that first appeared and was developed within the Italian circus world, and then spread worldwide.
(M. Fini, Fenomeni da baraccone. Miti e avventure dei grandi circensi italiani, Italica Edizioni, 2013)
Going back to our Rita Fanari, we can understand why her career as a “great phenomenon of nature” was decidedly unusual and way too old for a time when the audience had already started to favor the show of diversity (a theatrical, choreographic performance) over its simple exhibition.
The fact that her act was more rudimentary than those performed in the rest of Italy can be undoubtedly explained with the rural context she lived in, and with her visual impairment. A handicap that, despite being advertised as a doubtful added value, actually did not allow her to show off any other skill other than to put the thread through the needle’s eye and start sewing. Not exactly a dazzling sight.
Rita was inevitably the last among the many successful dwarfs, little people like her who in those years were having a huge success under the Big Top, and who sometimes got very rich ( “I spent my whole life amassing a fortune”, Bignoli wrote in his last letter). As she was cut off from actual show business, and incapacitated by her disability, her luck was much more modest; so much so that her very existence would certainly have been forgotten, if a few years ago Dr. Raimondo Orru, the descendant and namesake of her benefactor, had not found some details of her life in the family archives.
But those very circumstances that prevented her from keeping up with the times, also made her “the last one” in a more meaningful sense. Perhaps because of the rustic agro-pastoral context, her act was very old-fashioned. In fact, hers may have been the last historical case in Italy of a person with dwarfism exhibited as a pure lusus naturae, an exotic “freak of nature”, a prodigy to parade and display.
In mainland Italy, as we said, things were already changing. Midgets and dwarfs, well before any other “different” or disabled person, had to prove their desire to overcome their condition, making a show of their skills and courage, performing exceptional stunts.
Along with this idea, and with the definitive pathologization of physical anomalies during the twentieth century, the mythological aura surrounding exceptional, uneven bodies will be lost; and a gaze of pity/admiration will become established. Today, the spectacle of disability is only accepted in these two modes — it’s either tragedy, the true motor of charity events and telethons, or the exemplum, the heroic overcoming of the disabled person’s own “limits”, with all the plethora of inspirational, motivational, life-affirming anecdotes that come with it.
It is impossible to know precisely how the villagers considered Rita at the time. Was she the object of ridicule, or wonder?
The only element available to us, that billboard from 1907, definitely shows her as an admirable creature in herself. In this sense Rita was really someone out of the past, because she presented herself in the public eye just for what she was. The last of the dwarfs of times past, who had the capacity to fascinate without having to do acrobatics: she needed nothing more than herself and her extraordinary figure, half old half child, to be at least considered worthy the price of admission.
On the ethics of our approach to disability, check out my article Freaks: Gaze and Disability.
I would like to thank Stefano Pisu, beacuse all the info on Rita Fanari in this article come from a Facebook post he wrote on the page of the Associazione culturale Julia Augusta di Usellus.
Pictures of the original billboard are shown here courtesy of Raimondo Orru; his findings on Rita’s life are included in the book Usellus. Costume popolare e matrimonio (Edizioni Grafica del Parteolla, 2000).
Freakshow all’italiana… Commovente! Il Bagonghi mi mancava, stupendo!