Friday, 3 June 2016

“The Greatest German Living” - Master Entertainer and Polymath Matthias Buchinger

3 June 1674, the 29’’ tall polymath and contemporary show star Matthias Buchinger was born in Ansbach, Bavaria.

“He is the wonderful Little Man of but 29 inches high, born without hands, feet, or thighs, June the 2[nd], 1674, in Germany, in the Marquisate of Brandenburg, near to Nuremburg. . . . This Little Man performs such wonders as have never been done by any but himself. He plays on various sorts of music to admiration, [such] as the hautboy, [a] strange flute in consort with the bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet; and designs to make machines to play on almost all sorts of music. He is no less eminent for writing, drawing of coats of arms, and pictures to the life, with a pen; he also plays at cards and dice, performs tricks with cups and balls, corn and live birds; and plays at skittles or nine-pins to a great nicety, with several other performances, to the general satisfaction of all spectators.” (Matthias Buchinger, describing himself in an advertisement)

"Matthias Buchinger" - a self-portrait from 1723,
along with the advertisement quoted above

is the old superstition that pregnant women should not look at ugly or unpleasant people or animals, lest the child they carry takes on their resemblance and becomes ugly too. “Maternal Imprinting” was the terminus technicus. Thus, the freak was forbidden to show his tricks to everyone out in the open of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt but had to appear in a pub with a primarily male audience in the winter of 1708. Ironically enough, the highly gifted man they called a freak or a monstrosity back then sired at least 14 children with his eight wives and a lot more out of wedlock. But that was after he left the Holy Roman Empire and went to the court of King George I. The German-born monarch wouldn’t see him either, pregnant or not, the Little Man from Nuremberg went on to Dublin to perform his skills and had his breakthrough in Dublin in 1720, finally. “The Greatest German Living” stood just 29’’ tall, was born without feet and hands, his arms ended in flipper-like appendages, but never the less, Buchinger was an accomplished stage magician, marksman and knife thrower and a one-man-orchestra on top of it. He played the trumpet, bagpipes and, even without fingers, flute, oboe and dulcimer. Somehow, eyewitness reports remain silent about how exactly he managed to do it, but it seems he constructed mechanical contrivances for the purpose. Along with a considerable amount of charisma, Buchinger was a perfect showman and it seems almost as wonderous that it took the world 45 years to realise that. But after a performance in Glasgow in 1722, the British Isles lay at his feet, from Prime Minister Walpole to the nobility and hoi polloi. Even decades after his death, “Buckinger’s Boot” was a code for the primary female sex organs. He was a man of many talents indeed. Only the king wasn’t quite enchanted.

Matthias Buchinger's micrographic portrait of Queen Anne from 1718,
signed with "This is drawn and written by me, Matthew Buchinger born June 3, 1674.
Without Hands & Feet in Anspach in Germany"

Born as the last of nine children, Matthias was grateful to his parents throughout his life that they treated him quite like the rest of his siblings and did not sell him to a travelling freak show or something along these lines, not an unusual fate, obviously. He had the time to develop his talents, like learning to walk with the help of a floor-length, apron-like leather shell he propelled forward by shifting his weight. When his parents died, Matthias voluntarily joined the travelling showmen’s trade to make a living and to further hone his many skills and to entertain far beyond the mere display of his curious appearance like many of the folks did who somehow looked out of the ordinary. And there was another self-taught skill of Buchinger’s that would last beyond his certainly grandiose performances on the stage or during privately held shows. He was an accomplished visual artist as well. And as though it was not enough to be an accomplished draughtsman with two flipper-like appendices instead of hands, Buchinger did not only earn good money by drawing highly detailed family trees for the aristocracy but excelled in a rare form of calligraphy as well: micrography. Also known as microcalligraphy, micrography basically is the art of drawing by making up the lines with miniature writing, in Buchinger’s case usually bible verses. There’s even the possibility that he was a “quick-drawer” or “lightning draughtsman. Nobody knows how exactly he did it, but he did, his wonderful micrographic drawings survive to this day and along with his stage magician acts, his somewhat esoteric artworks brought him the reputation of being a true-blue wizard. With the sum of Buchinger’s talents being even more than the parts, a notion that is not very hard to follow. 

A contemporary German broadsheet showing Matthias Buchinger
exhibiting some of his show acts and many talents

There is no hint, though, that Buchinger was a member of one of the more popular magical or secret societies of his day, like the Rosicrucians or Freemasons but he created a magical world of his own regardless. And there is the obvious suspicion that he didn’t work alone, at least not all the time and with every trick he managed to entertain his audience with. He was a master showman regardless as well as a polymath and did not only overcome his physical disadvantages but developed them into an art form. Buchinger finally settled down in Ireland and died in Cork in 1740 at the age of 65 as one of the most exceptional and extravagant individuals in modern European history.

And more about Matthias Buchinger on: