Scholarship remains cumulative. The bracing ripple effects of resuming the project on The Image of the Black in Western Art are still being felt. First some of the main contributors to the crucial early modern volumes – particularly Jean-Michel Massing, Elizabeth McGrath, and Elmer Kolfin – collaborated on Black Is Beautiful, a European exhibition at the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam (2008; reviewed in this journal April 2010). Then the actual three-volume set was published by Harvard University Press, edited by David Bindman (vol. 2 by Massing; reviewed in this journal April 2012). Now an American exhibition at the Walters (slated to travel to Princeton), organized by Joaneath Spicer, contributes five powerful new essays and 80 objects on view to further the long-awaited analysis of this important topic.
Kate Lowe, co-editor of a major Cambridge anthology (with T.F. Earle; 2005) on imagery of blacks in Renaissance Europe, offers an introductory history chapter on the lives of slaves and varying status of blacks. She notes that medieval slavery consisted primarily of whites from the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea areas, so that importation of blacks from Africa is basically a Renaissance phenomenon. In Europe slavery also did not last a lifetime, so blacks enjoyed some social mobility; represented blacks thus cannot automatically be construed as slaves, even though they often toiled as household servants and may appear portrayed with those employers. Because of their adopted Christian names, however, slaves’ origins do not emerge easily from documents.
Spicer’s own thoughtful first essay considers “blackness” as represented. Often a dark antipode to white and lightness, black carried a negative stigma, though black skin was attributed to burning from sun exposure in the torrid zone (Ethiopia means “scorched”), according to ancient Greek authorities. But later associations with the sin of Ham, son of Noah, led to the ideology of skin pigment as a cursed marker of moral inferiority that so frequently recurred in later racialist theory. Spicer’s introduction provides a helpful, brief survey of explanations for this sordid history of ideas, whose shift can already be seen in the sixteenth century. Under both beliefs, black Africans formed a marked antipode to European white-skinned norms, as the popularity of the proverb-turned-emblem “washing an Ethiopian” attests (p. 43, n. 38). Many Dutch narratives (e.g. Cornelis van Haarlem’s 1594 Bathsheba, fig. 16) exploited this contrast, reinforcing the association of black servants with comely mistresses. Spicer even reads the rare black nudes in Bosch’s Garden of Delights (fig. 23) as a sympathetic aesthetic of diversity. However, while the latter might well be intended to show a cosmic image of terrestrial humanity, the overt sinfulness of the central luxuriousness surely stands close to later racialist indictments of “miscegenation.” Actual inclusion of black figures in narratives, such as the Baptism of the Eunuch (Acts 8), also afforded black figures central roles as protagonists well up to the era of Rembrandt, and careful drawing studies by Dürer (no. 55) as well as Veronese (nos. 53-54) appear on the walls of the exhibition.
“Leo Africanus,” a black African of Moroccan descent, mentioned in the first two essays becomes the focus of Natalie Zemon Davis’s study. Seized and presented to Pope Leo X as an Ottoman diplomat, he associated closely with Egidio da Viterbo and authored a first-hand 1526 geography and travel text on Africa, emphasizing costumes and commerce as well as conflicts. Eventually that work was refashioned in Venice by Giovanni Battista Ramusio into the 1550 Descrittione dell’Africa (illustrated with costume woodcuts – not engravings – in the 1556 French edition).
Spicer’s second essay concentrates on individual blacks in Renaissance Europe, including discussion of the celebrated portrait of a man in courtly dress by Jan Mostaert (ca. 1520/25; Amsterdam, fig. 39) and her newly discovered small tondo echo of a similar court figure (no. 61). She also raises the supposed African ancestry of duke Alessandro de’ Medici in Florence, portrayed by Pontormo and Bronzino (no. 62; see Carl Brandon Strehlke, The Transformatoin of the Renaissance Portrait in Florence, exh. cat. Philadelphia, 2004). Her predictably discouraging conclusion: “The educational attainments of a few underscore the lack of education of the many. . . except for scholars or persons operating under a diplomatic umbrella.” (p. 91) Taking up that lead in her second essay, Kate Lowe also focuses on individuals, African ambassadors and rulers, in “Visual Representations of an Elite.” All were made by and for Europeans, especially around the turn of the seventeenth century. Here, however, the representation of individuals blends readily into types and study heads with costume, whether for Vermeyen in the sixteenth century or Rubens (who used Vermeyen as a source) in the seventeenth.
Joaneath Spicer and the Walters deserve warm thanks for mounting this topical exhibition and especially for producing their instructive accompanying catalogue, whose essays provide authoritative and up-to-date assessments of the state of our knowledge. Sometimes the objects on view really needed the broader contextualizing provided by their catalogue, but this accessible introduction to a neglected field will surely spark further research and scholarship, so it deserves a place on the shelf beside those lavish three volumes of the early modern Image of the Black in Western Art.
University of Pennsylvania