Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Say Uncle

by Drew Martin
Pictured here is a portrait of King Charles II of Spain (1661 - 1700) by the Baroque painter Juan Carreño de Miranda. While the subject has been handled with a Goya-like frankness, Carreño must have been quite kind when you read a description of the royal sitter:

The Habsburg King Charles II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child. The nature of his upbringing, the inadequacy of his education, the stiff etiquette of his court, his dependence upon his mother and his superstition helped to create a mentally retarded and hypersensitive monarch. 

More baffling than this description is his family tree, and the variety of ways historians have tried to explain the interlooping relationships. Charles II was not simply the offspring of a first cousin marriage, but a culmination of repeated cousin marriages, and uncle/niece marriages for generations.

While I sympathize with the unfortunate result, the motivation behind all the inbreeding was to keep power within the family. Ironically, this is what destroyed them. And even though this all took place more than 300 years ago, and Gregor Mendel’s 19
th century explanation of genetics has illuminated such physical mishaps, it is hard not to draw a parallel with the leadership of modern era politics and corporations in which meritocracy is replaced by nepotism and favoritism. The worst case example is when the power position is so great that millions of lives are at stake, but even at a base level, it is not so much the ineptness of who has obtained a position and the consequences of that, as it is a shame that someone else deserved the position and what he or she could have done to elevate the result.