A deformed and tragic jester

Rigoletto in his time

By Érika Wicky 22 March 2016


© Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

A deformed and tragic jester

Rigoletto, the central character in Verdi's opera, was originally based on Triboulet, the hero of Victor Hugo's Le Roi s’amuse (1832): the author drew his inspiration from Nicolas Ferrial alias Triboulet, the court jester during the reigns of Louis XII and François I. « Imprisoned in an ill-made body », this hero sparked off criticism from those who considered it unrealistic to attribute such elevated feelings to one so physically deformed. Erika Wicky here considers the conception of this character within the scientific context of the time.    

For ugliness and deformity were just as sought after in a fool as intelligence in a monkey, beautiful plumage in a peacock or jargon in a popinjay or parrot. Paul Lacroix, Dissertation on the fools of the French kings,

Victor Hugo’s Triboulet is a highly-contrasted figure. A court jester who could have been lifted straight out of a Shakespeare play, he seems to correspond exactly to the motley-coloured striped costume with which he is traditionally decked out. The attribution of sublime paternal love and a tragic destiny to a grotesque buffoon, despite being essential to the alchemy of the author’s romantic design, was greeted with both jeers and applause in equal measure. The most irascible critics were unanimous in judging such dissonance as unrealistic and were scathing in their condemnation of such gross coarseness in a tragic hero. Le National, for example, on 25th November 1832, remarked that although art had once been confined to “regions pure and ethereal” where it lived on “fresh air and honey”, it now drew “its models from low brows and bulging eyes, from bulbous noses, hunched backs and bloated stomachs.”

It is precisely in these contrasts that Rigoletto’s success lies. Transposed to Mantua, translated into Italian and considerably shortened by the librettist Maria Piave before being set to music, Victor Hugo’s original story seduced audiences for its subtle nuances, accentuated by Verdi’s orchestration. As E. Vaïsse wrote on March 25th 1860 in the Revue de Toulouse, “The situations, the contrasts in Le Roi s’amuse emerge even more strongly through Verdi’s sophisticated music.” Moreover, the variety of sentiments expressed by the character of Rigoletto was a way of highlighting the talent of the baritone chosen for the role. “It requires a great actor to play Rigoletto”, so as to "bring out all the subtlety" of the character, wrote one critic on November 13th 1859, on the front page of the magazine L’Orchestre.

Whether enthusiastic or scathing, 19th century critics of the work perceived a paradox in the tragic character of the fool. Besides the permeable relationship between tears and laughter, this paradox resided in the juxtaposition of ugliness and cruelty with lofty sentiments in a single character. If the fool's ugliness seemed irreconcilable with his paternal feelings, it is not merely because it appeared unlikely that he could ever have had a love affair, but also by virtue of a strong association between beauty and morality, between physical characteristics and the nature of the soul. His non-idealised body, strongly underlined by his infirmity, seemed instantly to preclude all the refinements of civilised behaviour.

Today everyone accepts that greatness of the soul bears no relation to the shape of one’s legs, but we owe this idea, relatively recent in an historical context, to the progress of modern science. At the time of the Renaissance, when Victor Hugo set his play, blindness, red hair, black skin, - the slightest difference in fact - could give rise to the most violent discrimination or even persecution. The 19th century, during which Le Roi s’amuse and Rigoletto first appeared, was still animated by such prejudices, albeit to a lesser extent. Physiognomy, a pseudo-science developed by Johann Kaspar Lavater, enjoyed a considerable following and a number of works on the subject were translated into French as early as the end of the 18th century and appeared in several editions. Prompted by a conviction, based on a confused relationship of cause and effect, that facial features and bodily characteristics could reveal the temperament and capacities of a person, amateurs of physiognomy indulged in the facial analysis of diverse subjects, including historic personages, whose portraits they observed. Numerous also were the contemporaries of Hugo and Verdi, who, following in the wake of the German physician Joseph Gall, examined people’s skulls to interpret their bumps.

Although hardly exemplifying the most glorious passages in the history of medicine, these theories, which aimed to give greater significance to representations of the human form, had considerable influence on artistic creation of the time. Widespread and firmly anchored in popular belief, they also affected the way in which works were received. One should consider Rigoletto’s (and Triboulet’s) deformity not merely as a tragic device but as one of the historical elements shedding light on Verdi’s work.

This is how Paul Lacroix, in a text entitled Les Deux Fous published in 1838, described the fool: "Triboulet had an enormous head, with prodigious ears, a broadly split mouth, a big nose, large prominent eyes beneath a low and narrow forehead. The sight of his flat, hollow chest, his hump back, his short legs and torso and his long pendulous arms amused the ladies as if he were a monkey or a parrot." Even without referring to the works of Lavater, it comes as no surprise that, according to the beliefs of the time, such a physique augured nothing good. Although Victor Hugo subverts his physiological model with explanations that today we would qualify as “psychological”, in a tirade considerably shortened by the librettist, the jester explains that his hatred of the courtiers is a result of his deformity:

Imprisoned in an ill-made body and ill at ease,
All filled with disgust at my deformity,
Jealous of all strength and all beauty
Ultimately, Rigoletto’s character is determined by his body.

n both Hugo’s play and Piave’s libretto, the fact that the fool is a hunchback is one of his most strongly emphasised characteristics. The figure of the hunchback, so dear to Victor Hugo (Notre Dame de Paris appeared a few months before the opening of Le Roi s’amuse), is of particular interest in medical history. Not everybody shared the opinion formulated by the 16th century Italian physician Giambattista Della Porta, in a work entitled Human Physiognomy: “For my part, I consider all those who are mutilated or imperfect as wicked, and principally hunchbacks who are the worst of all.” Indeed, physicians and thinkers who took an interest such matters, like the insatiable observer La Bruyère, agreed that hunchbacks showed greater quickness of mind than the others. This intellectual vivacity was explained by the shape of the back which allowed the development of a larger brain, excellence of wit compensating for physical infirmity.

In the course of the 19th century, physiological explanations were tempered by behavioural justifications: “The manner in which [hunchbacks] are constantly taunted keeps them on the defensive and renders them hostile. […] Their entire lives are a malicious web of spitefulness” (Isidore Bourdon, De la physiognomonie et la phrenology (1842). During the 19th century, although the hunchback’s “natural tendency towards wit and malice” was never called into question, it was, however, the object of a number of explanations aiming to determine its causes. Nourished by such commonplaces, the 19th century public’s fascination for physical deformities and their moral corollaries, was not without heightening the strange and tragic impact of Rigoletto.

With a doctorate in History of Art, (University of Montreal), Érika Wicky currently holds a research post at the University of Liège and is associate researcher at the University of Rennes 2. She specialises in 19th century history, particularly in writings on Art and Photography. In 2015, she published Les paradoxes du détail: voir, savoir, représenter à l’ère de la photographie (Presses universitaires de Rennes, « Æsthetica »).     

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, this new production of Rigoletto marks director Claus Guth’s first collaboration with the Paris Opera.

Other articles of the folder

Related articles

Subscribe to the magazine

Sign up to receive news from
Octave Magazine by email.


Back to top