Death, Deformity, Decay: Memento Mori and the Case of the Colloredo Twins

This guest post is by Rach Klein. Rach is an art history Masters Candidate at McGill University whose research focuses on the early modern grotesque, medical illustration, and print. She is a current recipient of a Joseph-Armand Bombardier grant, as well as a Michael Smith Foreign Studies scholarship.

Throughout the last month I have had the privilege of working in the NYAM Library, looking directly at their remarkable collection of broadsheets and rare books.  The opportunity to closely examine the objects and images that I am studying is unparalleled. My research locates a framework for viewing 17th-century non-normative and “freakish” bodies in the memento mori traditions of the previous century. Memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning, “remember you will die,” became shorthand for a host of visual imagery and cultural objects rooted in medieval Christian theory, which permeated the European early modern.  With a specific focus on the culture of spectacle employed by early modern “shows of wonder” and touring freak shows, the research that I have been doing at NYAM combines visual analysis with medical history and disability studies to suggest that integral to the creation of early modern “freaks” is a manipulation of non-normative persons into objects that spark mortuary contemplation. Guiding this research is the case of Italian conjoined/parasitic twins Lazarus Colloredo and Joannes Baptista Colloredo (1617–1646). Their journey, which is remarkably well-documented in both text and image (for example, see Fig. 1), showcases the duality of the so-called “freak body” and its links to mortuary philosophy.

Historia Ænigmatica, de gemellis Genoæ connati

Fig. 1. Mylbourne, R. (Publisher). (1637). Historia Ænigmatica, de gemellis Genoæ connatis, [Engraving]. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

In 1617, Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo were born into a life of spectacle and uncertainty. Protruding laterally from the breast of Lazarus was his twin brother, Joannes Baptista, whose malformed body lived partially inside him. Unable to speak or move independently, Joannes Baptista was deemed a “parasitic twin”.  As living persons that defy expectations of the “normative,” visual documentation of the Colloredo twins’ spectacular bodies/body provides insight into anxieties about the boundaries between animate/inanimate, normal/abnormal, beauty/ugliness, soul/body, and, ultimately, life/death. Jan Bondeson calls attention to how remarkable their story is, even within the history of conjoined twins. He says:

Conjoined twins are the result of imperfect splitting of a fertilized ovum and the site of conjunction depends on which part of the splitting has not occurred. Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Collerado represent one of the very few convincing cases of viable omphalopagus parasiticus twins (who lived).[1]

The words in parentheses here, “who lived,” iterate the challenges of piecing together a history of marginalized persons such as those who are disabled and deformed, and the gentle surprise provoked by the twins’ survival.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery found throughout my research is the nonlinear timeline in scholarship about these twins due to a misattributed/incorrectly labelled print from Giovanni Battista de’Cavalieri’s series of engravings, Opera nel a quale vie molti Mostri de tute le parti del mondo antichi et Moderni (Monsters from all parts of the ancient and modern world), published in 1585 (Fig. 2). This image, which is reprinted in Fortunio Liceti’s 1634 De Monstrorum Caussis (Fig. 3), is captioned with the twins’ names and place of birth, despite having been created thirty-years prior to their birth. As with many “freakish” bodies, the accuracy of their experience exists separately from its visual history.[2]

Although these contradictions of dates and attributions make reproducing a clean narrative difficult, they reflect a larger theme of teratology: that bodies are detached from persons, and imaginative ideals misaligned from lived experience. The image by de’ Cavalieri was likely a representation of an earlier set of conjoined twins in the 16th century, perhaps based on conjoined twins mentioned by Ambrose Paré in 1530. This image is subsequently reproduced in Liceti’s 1665 edition of his work, now titled De Monstris. Hence, the twins’ image has been collapsed into a narrative that took place well before their birth, and which frames them as simultaneously alive and dead.



Fig. 3. Liceti, F. (1634). [Rueffo puer Amiterni natus uno brachio, fed pedibus tribus in hanc effigiem] (p. 117). De monstrorum caussis, natura, et differentiis libri duo … Padua, Italy: Apud Paulum Frambottum.

Worries and uncertainties over death and the body make themselves known in images and stories documenting the “freakish” body. Art that has been traditionally deemed “grotesque,” “macabre,” or more colloquially, simply “disturbing” is part of a symbolic system that expresses metaphysical anxieties about what lurks beneath the surface of the body. I am not attempting to medicalize nor romanticize the history of those who are or have been designated as disabled, deformed, monstrous, and freakish. Rather, my aim is to provide a critical and historical study of how non-normative bodies have been catalogued as a memento mori for its witnesses and used by able-bodied viewers as tools of self-reflection and meditation, a practice that actively erases personhood in favour of objectification.[3]


[1] Bondeson, Jan. The Two-headed Boy: And Other Medical Marvels. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

[2] Jillings, Karen. “Monstrosity as Spectacle: The Two Inseparable Brothers’ European Tour of the 1630s and 1640s.” Popular Entertainment Studies 2, no. 1 (2011): 54–68.

[3] My work is particularly indebted to the disability, feminist, and race scholarship of Tobin Siebers (Disability Aesthetics), Rana Hogarth (Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840), and Elizabeth Grosz (Volatile Bodies).

Further Reading

Bates, A. W., Emblematic Monsters: Unnatural Conceptions and Deformed Births in Early Modern Europe. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009.

Benedict, Barbara M. Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 2012.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 2008.