Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last of her line, never had a child, but she did have a tiny replica of one. Her plump-cheeked baby is still on display in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Its sleeping face is carved from pearl, and it slumbers under a rumpled blanket formed from a lumpy pearl.

Who’s looking after the baby? It has a family of sorts: a grim-faced fiddling mermaid, a comical soldier, an ostrich clutching a jewel in its talons. It’s a ragtag crew, but they have something in common: their limbs and heads sprout from pearl bodies. A trilobed pearl forms the mermaid’s bust; a cloven one, capped with tiny boots, acts as the soldier’s legs; the ostrich’s body is a pearly glob. This was Anna de’ Medici’s collection: a little menagerie of pearl monsters.

There’s a specific term for these irregular pearls: “baroque,” from the Portuguese barroco. These pearls were baroque before anyone thought to apply the term to the music of Bach and Vivaldi, the sensuous paintings of Caravaggio and Rubens, or lavish cathedral architecture. Even today we use “baroque” to signify all things lavish, florid, and grotesque. For that, we have misshapen pearls to thank.

Irregular pearls like these ones served as three-dimensional Rorschach tests for sixteenth- and seventeenth- century jewelers. In the jeweler’s hands, the warty surface of the pearl could become a swan’s downy stomach, an expanse of rocky ground, or Hercules’ muscular back. What makes these pieces so delightful is that, no matter how ingenious the figure around it, the pearl in the center can never be perfectly integrated. It shines out, fleshy and bulbous, giving even the loveliest pieces of jewelry a diseased quality.

Read more about the lumpy pearls that enchanted the Medicis on the Daily Jstor website HERE

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