Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 25, 2013
Joaneath Spicer, ed. Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe Exh. cat. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2012. 143 pp.; 122 color ills. $25.00 (9780911886788)
Exhibition schedule: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, October 14, 2012–January 21, 2013; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, February 16–June 9, 2013
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Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (after 1553). Oil on tin. 16 x 12.5 cm. (6 5/16 x 4 15/16 in.). Istituti museali della Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Fiorentino, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

A woodcut illustration of the known world spreads across two pages of the Liber Chronicarum, or Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493. The edges of the map are held in place by Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the three sons of Noah who divided Asia, Africa, and Europe between them and repopulated the human race after the biblical Flood. In this representation, published four years before Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of the African continent, the true geographical shape of Africa remains undefined. On the page to the left are images of monstrous races that, according to both classical and Christian traditions, occupied the extreme edges of the earth. Sebastian Münster’s Map of Africa, published half a century later in the Cosmographia universalis (1554), retains some of the cartographic conventions of antiquity and the Middle Ages but updates the form of the African landmass with more familiar contours, its sharpened coastlines reflecting the surge of European exploration in the sixteenth century. These are two of the first images encountered by visitors to Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, an exhibition organized by the Walters Art Museum in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum. Together, the maps express the fascination, fear, and desire for knowledge and power that characterized European responses to Africa over the course of the early modern period. The layers of cartographical information culled from biblical history, classical mythology, natural science, and travel narratives also forecast the eclectic nature of Renaissance artists’ responses to an African presence in Europe.

As European voyages in the so-called Age of Discovery mapped previously unknown shores, and as newly established trade routes transported goods between Africa and Europe, Africans themselves began to enter Europe in increasing numbers. Many arrived as slaves, but others came as members of official delegations sent by African rulers, or as pilgrims from the Christian kingdoms of Kongo and Ethiopia. With the goal of exploring the lives of Africans and people of African descent in Europe during the long sixteenth century (ca. 1480–1610), curator Joaneath Spicer has assembled eighty objects that give visual form to this aspect of the Renaissance. Many of the artworks on view present information riddled with ambiguity and inaccuracy, superstition and anachronism, defying our modern expectations of what constitutes truth and defines identity. For historians with access to archives of comparative images and texts, such objects have opened up new avenues for inquiry into the topic of race in the early modern world. Beginning especially in the early 1990s with the work of Peter Erickson, Paul H. D. Kaplan, Kim Hall, and others, visual representations of blacks became critical to cultural studies and historical analyses of ethnic difference in the Renaissance. Far from reaching a consensus or establishing a dominant narrative, the increase in scholarship has continued to reveal more complexity. But the instability of racial identity poses an interpretive challenge for museums with regards to their public: How to differentiate Renaissance responses to black Africans from the systematic racism associated with the institution of slavery in the Americas?

Rather than filing down the rough edges and combing out the snarls, Spicer and contributing scholars Kate Lowe and Nathalie Zemon-Davis do their best to underscore the multifaceted and variable nature of color-based attitudes in this period. The catalogue essays by Lowe and Zemon-Davis manage to distill elements of the authors’ own important contributions to this field without sacrificing all nuance. With clear, accessible language, the exhibition’s interpretive texts offer visual analysis along with concise explanations of Renaissance terminology like “Moor,” “Ethiopian,” and “Negro,” as well as historical summaries of blackness as both a positive and a negative aesthetic. As a whole, Revealing the African Presence consistently highlights the disquieting incongruities of race in the Renaissance, challenge any universalizing explanations. This means that a great deal of text accompanies the artworks, but the additional information is necessary for making visible what was, for too long, invisible.

With a range of visual material including printed books, bronze sculptures, oil paintings, and engravings, the first half of the exhibition explores conditions and conventions of representation that framed the lives of Africans in Europe. In thematic subdivisions (“Perceptions of Africa,” “Africans in Christian Art,” and “The Institution of Slavery”), images become barometers of cultural transformation, exposing the mobility of objects and people. An ivory pyx from Sierra Leone (ca. 1520), carved with scenes of the Passion of Christ and ostensibly commissioned to hold the consecrated host during a Catholic mass, traveled by ship from the artist’s workshop in west Africa to the port of Lisbon, bringing an African mode of visualization to Europe. In a Venetian painting of The Supper at Emmaus (1530–40), a black man sits to the right of Christ. He is not a servant; his headdress identifies him as an Egyptian soldier, and his position beside Christ extends the promise of salvation to all of humanity. Venice was a cosmopolitan center of commerce in the Renaissance, drawing visitors from across the Mediterranean world. In addition to diplomats, merchants, and soldiers, the artist probably observed with some regularity members of the city’s own population of Afro-Venetians, which included freed slaves.

At multiple points in the exhibition, viewers’ attentions are directed to the interplay between subject matter and medium. One case holds three small statuettes likely created for display in a private household, including a Black Court Jester (attributed to Orazio Mochi, ca. 1600–10) and a Black Woman at Her Bath (by an unknown Flemish or French artist, 1580s), both cast in bronze. The third figure in the case, a nude black female crouched low atop a stone pedestal, might best exemplify the late Renaissance taste for decorative objects that combined luxury and novelty. In a first cursory glance, I assumed the polished brown surface to be bronze as well, but the figure is sculpted from fragrant Brazilian Rosewood, a species of timber imported to Europe from South America beginning in the sixteenth century and used mainly in the manufacture of musical instruments. As Spicer points out in her catalogue essay, rosewood was not commonly used for sculpture in this period, which suggests a certain aesthetic intentionality in the artist’s choice. The purposeful correlation between the intriguing rarity of dark skin and the exotic luxury of the natural material used here to evoke it is reinforced by the sculpture’s own base. Made of highly polished lapis lazuli, a blue stone mined in Afghanistan, and giallo antico, a yellow marble frequently repurposed from ancient Roman monuments, the pedestal itself would have been costly. Giallo antico in particular was associated with the opulence of antiquity; it was known to have been quarried mainly in the ancient Roman province of Numidia in northern Africa. For Renaissance viewers, the African source of the marble presumably added to the network of elastic associations between their own culture and that of antiquity, the expanding extra-European world, luxury, Nature’s variety, and artistic invention.

The second half of the exhibition considers individuals of African ancestry through the lens of portraiture, beginning with portrayals of men, women, and children who were likely slaves and servants. These images link their individual subjects with the broader conditions of African experience introduced thematically in the first half of the exhibition, a shrewd curatorial move that immediately and strategically destabilizes the notion of portraiture. In another context, we might regard Ludovico Carracci’s Head of a Black Man from the Rear (ca. 1580–1600) and Paolo Veronese’s Study of the Head of a Black Man (ca. 1573) and Study of a Black Youth Eating (ca. 1580) not as portraits, but simply as preparatory sketches for large-scale religious paintings in which the presence of Africans implied an exotic locale. For their quick studies of human form, both artists used live models, most of whom remain anonymous. By labeling these works as portraits, however, conjuring and skewering viewers’ own expectations of identity and status, the exhibition provokes a clever renegotiation of a staple genre in early modern European art.

No single work in the exhibition is the indisputable visual highlight, although for some visitors, the Walters’s own Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici (ca. 1539) by Jacopo da Pontormo may claim that title. It is displayed alongside Portrait of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (after 1533) painted by Pontormo’s student Agnolo Bronzino, pointing to an ongoing scholarly debate over the subjects’ racial identity in which visual evidence is key. Based on his depiction in numerous extant portraits and supported by contemporary documents, historians have postulated that Alessandro, who ruled as the first Medici duke of Florence from 1530 to 1537, was very likely born to a black African woman serving in the Medici household. The image of his illegitimate daughter Giulia, whom Pontormo shows with her guardian and cousin Maria Salviati de’ Medici, was painted over in the nineteenth century; museum conservators in 1937 quite literally began a restoration of her identity.

Three bust-length portraits by the Florentine artist Cristofano dell’Altissimo dominate one wall of the exhibition’s last section on African diplomats and rulers. They depict the Mamluk sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’it Bay (1416–1498), the Ethiopian emperor Dawit III (1496–1540), and a figure whose inscription identifies him as “Alchitrof, King of Ethiopia.” Though displayed here as a formidable trio, they are but three of over four hundred portraits that formed the Medici family’s collected series of uomini famosi—illustrious men from past and present—many copied by Cristofano from paintings in the historian Paolo Giovio’s collection in Como at the behest of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. The portrait series is normally installed in a single continuous line wrapping along the top of the Uffizi’s east corridor. In that context and in most related scholarship, the works are treated as marginal. Their status as copies (and in some cases, copies of copies) long relegated them to an art-historical no-man’s-land, until the growing interest in Renaissance collecting practices gave them new relevance. Even then, with few exceptions, the portraits were considered worthy of study only in so far as they might reveal something about the cultural elite by whom they were collected.

The temporary relocation of these portraits from the Uffizi is an achievement, effecting a literal and figurative shift from periphery to center. Repositioned for optimal viewing in the middle of the museum wall, rather than consigned to the uppermost register just underneath the ceiling, the paintings command attention. Detached from the large corpus that usually defines their identity, the individual subjects become the focus. In this context, the emperor Dawit III is not just one of many illustrious men. He is the influential sovereign of Ethiopia, a Christian realm that had maintained contact with the Catholic Church in Rome for centuries, a figure reported to be so wealthy and powerful that the desire to make him an ally against Islam fueled many European voyages.

Perhaps because such images often reveal more complexity in European responses to Africa than consistency, museums have tread cautiously in the past, avoiding head-on confrontations with the idea of a racially charged Renaissance. And in spite of positive public response to the ambitious research and publication project The Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research), an exhibition like this was apparently not an easy sell; only Princeton came on board with the Walters. Still, Spicer and her colleagues have taken risks and broken new ground. With the presentation of these works of art, the organizers of Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe have engineered eye-level encounters that successfully refute African anonymity on multiple levels.

Ingrid Greenfield
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Chicago; Rhoades Curatorial Fellow, Department of African Art and Indian Art of the Americas, Art Institute of Chicago

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.