VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)

Don Diego de Acedo (El Primo)

c. 1645
Oil on canvas, 106 x 83 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

It was customary at the courts of Europe during the seventeenth century for monarchs to keep dwarfs. Velázquez's sympathy for the fools and dwarfs of the Spanish court is obvious: in the pathos and humane understanding demonstrated by the single portraits with which he (and he alone) paid tribute to them.

A particularly impressive portrait is Velázquez's painting of the dwarf Don Diego de Acedo, alias El Primo (The Cousin), probably commissioned by the court and executed at Fraga in about 1644. (The dwarf was called El Primo because he boasted of being the relative of Velázquez.)

Like the midget Sebastian de Morra, who served in the retinue of the Infante Don Fernando and Prince Baltasar Carlos, El Primo is shown sitting, and is viewed slightly from below. The effect of presenting them from this dignified aspect is to raise their status in the eyes of the spectator. El Primo is portrayed leafing through the pages of an enormous tome. His small size makes the books surrounding him appear even more gigantic than they are. His occupation here is undoubtedly a reference to his administrative duties at the court. At the same time, it is probably an example of humanist satirical jest, which would often decry the senseless writing and reading of books as a contemptible vice. Contemporary spectators would never have accepted that a dwarf knew how to use the attributes of a scholar; the artist thus seems to be using an apparently grotesque discrepancy to poke fun at the pseudo-scholars of his day.