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A veiny hand missing half of the index finger

Goltzius: The Crippled Hand of One of History’s Best Printmakers


One of the best engravers in the Low Countries, during his life he turned a physical defect to his distinct advantage.

Far less well-known today than the printmakers and painters he admired in his lifetime —among them, Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer— Hendrick Goltzius (1558- 1617) was a nevertheless a superstar engraver among his contemporaries. According to testimonies of the time, Goltzius (the Latinized version of his paternal surname, Goltz) had to hide his face during walks in Rome, where he’d traveled to absorb the work of Michelangelo, and so as to avoid recognition by a mob of unconditional admirers.

But hiding his face, in fact, meant very little. Any gesture would expose what was one of his most characteristic features: his right hand. A fire when he’d been but one year old, had left Goltzius with severe burns on his right hand which was partially crippled thereafter.

“Goltzius’ defect,” his particular stigma, did nothing to decrease his fame. The artistic quality of his engravings was considered uncommon, and many attributed his virtuosity to the sui generis characteristic of his right hand. This was so much so that, according to Karel Van Mandar, a friend and biographer, the artist drew with his left hand, but for engraving he used exclusively the right. A major historian, A. Hyatt, held that it was precisely the disposition of this crippled hand which allowed Goltzius to grasp more firmly the engraving burin, “forcing him to draw with the far greater muscles of the arm and shoulder, such that he dominated the turn of the lines.”

Goltzius acquired the better part of his dexterity in his youth, in his father’s workshop. This was dedicated to producing paintings on glass and, under his father’s tutelage, the future engraver learned to adapt his special physical characteristics and put them to the service of a limitless artistic ambition.

The fact that Goltzius was aware that his deformity had become an advantage, that is, it’d become something special, is evident in the drawings and engravings in which he portrayed his own right hand. Virtuosity and perfectionism in the line is apparent in these engravings as in those depicting to the Four Disgracers of Greek mythology (Phaeton, Ixion, Icarus and Tantalum). His story —recounted in the Peter Greenaway film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company— is an inspiring testimony to the overcoming of physical limitation and how it can become a gift.

A naked man falling from the sky with a small angel floating below him

Images: 1) Public domain 2) Public domain

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