Princeton University Art Museum highlights African presence in Renaissance Europe

Duke Alessandro de’ Medici is all over the Princeton University campus these days. His handsome visage, from a painting by Agnolo Bronzino completed in the middle of the 1500s, is on the banner heralding the Art Museum’s exhibition, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, on view through June 9.

One of the most prominent figures of the Renaissance, Alessandro de’ Medici, duke of Florence (1511–1537), is believed to have been of African ancestry. His father was most likely Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement VII), and his mother may have been a black servant in the Medici household.

During the Renaissance, European society was not as colorful as the faces of students at Princeton today. Black or brown skin was a clear mark of difference, within a very white world.

Europeans viewed Africa as an exotic place were beautiful naked women might ride a ferocious crocodile, according to Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where Revealing the African Presence originated. Printed travel literature was the primary way most Europeans experienced Africa.

Europeans considered the lack of clothing a sign of indecency, and this influenced how they judged unclothed people. “Gabonese King Receiving Europeans” (1599) by Johann Theodore de Bry shows fully clothed European explorers before the king and queen of Gabon and their subjects – all stark naked.

There were no words for ethnography or anthropology at the time, said Spicer. “Humanist scholars wondered what human beings were like after the flood. Were they violent and lawless? Were they scattered like beasts in the fields, before the law abiding society we see around us existed?

White Europeans thought black skin was “discolored.” Writers and artists of the time linked blackness with sin and savagery. The Italian poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) wrote a poem “The Beautiful Slave,” beginning with “Black, yes, but so beautiful…”

In the early 1600s artists developed an appreciation for blackness as an aesthetic choice. Sculptors worked in dark materials – lustrous black marble, wood, bronze, iron – and depicted black people.

The European slave trade brought Africans to the Mediterranean during the 16th century. Slavery in Europe was primarily urban, with the slave working alongside the master in small businesses. Domestic work by female slaves may have included sexual exploitation. After the death of the master, slaves were set free and provided with the means to start a new life. Sometimes there were legacies of money, and former slaves may have worked as lawyers, artists, authors, craftsmen and clergymen.

Christian art often included Africans in Adoration of the Magi scenes. Artists portrayed Africans as rulers as well as slaves. In “Adoration of the Kings” by Girolamo da Santa Croce, one of the three wise men is a tall, dark-skinned man, his curly top adorned with a crown of gold.

Cleopatra, whose grandmother was Egyptian, is usually portrayed in art as a voluptuous nude European.

During the Renaissance (1400-1600), painting shifted focus from the theological to the portrait. At first it was powerful men who commissioned portraits.

The earliest Renaissance portrait of a patron attended by a person thought to be a slave is Titian’s “Portrait of Laura de Dianti with a Black Page.” Black children were prized as exotic status objects and richly dressed to emphasize this.

“Portrait of a Black Woman Slave,” attributed to Annibale Carracci, is actually the remaining fragment of a larger composition that included her owner. All that’s left of him is an arm and a shoulder. The painting may have been damaged and cut to its present size.

At the end of the exhibit a beautiful, but empty, frame, is a testament to the many Africans of Renaissance Europe whose portraits are not here.

The exhibition makes note that Africans who made important contributions to Europe at the time are unknown to us because their portraits were not painted or preserved.Other Africans in Europe — some represented inthis exhibition — remain unidentified. Exhibition organizers hope this show will spark additional research to shed light ontheir names and lives.

Revealing the African Presence in European Art is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University campus, through June 9.

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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