Teachers this month are probably scrambling to come up with interesting curriculum to celebrate Black History Month. I am guessing that “Africans in Medieval and Renaissance Art” is probably not going to be a hot topic (especially in the US). But there is a story there and it is one that can be told through some beautiful images. By 1505, there were as many as 140,000-170,000 Africans in Europe. Many of these people were brought to Italy from the Ottoman Empire and as this section from the Victoria Albert museum points outs, not all Africans were depicted as slaves. Below is the Adoration of the Magi.
One of my favorite Raucous Royals – Duke Alessandro de’Medici was rumored to be of Moorish descent. Nicknamed, “il Moro” (the Moor), he was the son of Guilio de Medici and a Moorish slave.* His daughter, the beautiful Giuila de Medici is believed to be depicted below as a child with her Grandmother, Maria Salviati.
Throughout the 15th and 17th centuries, African children were frequently portrayed in portraiture as no more than exotic pets and status symbols to the elite. Believe it or not, they were often shown next to an aristocratic lady to make the female sitter’s skin appear whiter. (shown below is Louise de Keroualle and her Page)
And here is Titian's portrait of Laura dei Dianti and her Page:
It may sound crazy to use a dark skinned child to make yourself look whiter, but have you ever noticed that today’s pop divas always have more voluptuous back up singers and dancers behind them?
Future exhibit on Africans in Renaissance Art
One of the most frustrating aspects of this topic is that the identity of many of these people is lost to history. I am really excited for an upcoming exhibition in Baltimore – Face to Face: The African Presence in Renaissance Europe. In October, the Walker museum will attempt to reconstruct some of these lost faces.
*He was really recognized as Lorenzo II de Medici’s son, but I am not buying it.