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Faces of the Renaissance

By Mary Kay Zuravleff | HUMANITIES, January/February 2013 | Volume 34, Number 1

When you stare into the eyes of Old Master portraits, who is it that stares back? You may be surprised at how familiar these Renaissance-era faces are. That’s the point of the exhibition “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, which offers visual evidence that multiculturalism has Old World roots. Curator Joaneath Spicer has brought together some eighty paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts in her quest to detect contributions of African ancestry from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. The resulting show represents a remarkable diversity of people, a population that poses new questions about race, class, and stereotypes.

During the Renaissance, cultural identity and the importance of the individual loomed as large as they do now. Mindful of those values, Spicer tries to put a name to the faces depicted some five hundred years ago. She asks that you look closely at these subjects, and it is while unraveling their DNA that you may find a few of your own strands in their likenesses.

The exhibition itself was prompted by Spicer putting a name to a face in a portrait in the Walters’s Renaissance collection. Her sleuthing identified a child who was invisible for nearly a century and reappeared only to be misunderstood. Here’s how the mystery unfolded. In 1902, Henry Walters purchased a painting created around 1539 by the Renaissance master Jacopo da Pontormo that was tentatively identified as Vittoria Colonna (1490–1547), a celebrated poet. As early as 1937, art conservators who X-rayed the subject were surprised to see something beneath the surface; lo and behold, cleaning the work restored a child to the older woman.

This revelation cast doubt on the sitter ’s identity. Vittoria Colonna, a close friend of Michelangelo, was known as a pious, childless, poet. In the marketplace, her portrait would have netted more than one of “a woman and child,” which was how this painting was listed in an 1814 inventory of art belonging to descendants of the Salviati family. By 1881, the same work, cataloged as “Vittoria Colonna,” appears in the collection of Don Marcello Massarenti, which suggests that an enterprising mid-nineteenth-century dealer masked the child to enhance his profit.

Some years ago, Walters curator Edward King recognized that Maria Salviati was Pontormo’s real subject, but the fact that Maria had a son led him and others to see the child as a boy, namely Cosimo de’ Medici. As Cosimo later became duke of Florence, such a portrait would seem to hold its value; however, when Spicer looked at the painting, she didn’t recognize Cosimo. Instead, she clearly saw a young girl, whose flowing dress and braided hairstyle could be seen in another Italian portrait of that era, namely Veronese’s 1552 Portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and Her Daughter Deidamia, also in the Walters collection. In fact, scholarship soon determined that the so-called boy in the Pontormo portrait was Giulia de’ Medici, Maria Salviati’s niece and ward.

Now, Spicer was hooked. Giulia was the daughter of Alessandro de’ Medici, himself widely believed to be the son of Pope Clement VII and an African slave. Alessandro was also the tyrannical duke of Florence until his assas- sination in 1537, whereupon Cosimo took over as duke, and Maria became Giulia’s guardian. Spicer sought out a painting of Alessandro believed to be a likeness rather than an idealized portrait, and she found one by Bronzino (Pontormo’s pupil), painted after 1553. Considered together, Pontormo’s and Bronzino’s paintings show a child who shares Alessandro’s features, though not his skin color. Thus, the visual evidence supported the curator’s hunch, which was informed by scholarship, history, and closely looking at her subject. Giulia was no doubt painted over not because of her parentage, but to transform Maria into the more profitable Vittoria. Nonetheless, bringing the child back into the frame helped connect the dots back to her father, probably the most prominent Renaissance man of mixed race, and his mother, a freed slave who is known to us only as Simonetta, wife of a mule driver. With this discovery came the promise of others, and Spicer wanted to bring the research she was uncovering to the public for a conversation on racial identity.

For example, what race is mixed race? Alessandro de’ Medici was from Florence, where the legal status of the child was linked to the father; in Roman law, the child’s slave status was that of the mother. In the United States, in the early twentieth century, race was most narrowly defined as a single drop of “black” blood classifying a person as black, for the purposes of limiting their civil rights.

The museum's exploration of art and identity reveals how bloodlines have mixed for centuries, and the exhibition catalog covers this in more depth. To prepare for conversations about color, race, and class, the exhibition starts with European depictions of Africa and its inhabitants when most of what was known was conjecture. Early, wildly inaccurate maps are bordered by “strange peoples,” hybrids of man and beast as well as some possessing extra limbs or eyes. Etchings of the exotic giraffe explain that the gentle animal is a cross between a leopard and a camel. Meanwhile, images of black and blackness are used for all things negative. A Dutch devotional, Picture (Handbook) of the Christian Faith from around 1400 personified sin as a three-headed African from the Land of the Blacks. Poets and painters often equated darkness with sin and savagery—night was a time of chaos and danger—as they associated pale or white with purity, beauty, and truth. Europeans assumed the original color of human skin was white; their very name for the African land of “Ethiopia” is from the Greek word for “scorched by the sun.”

Religion, diplomacy, and commerce brought more contact between Africa and Europe during what is called the “long sixteenth century ” (circa 1480–1610). This contact resulted in more accurate depictions of the continent and its people (in truth, more depictions in general, including stereotypes). In a Flemish version of the Magi visiting the Christ Child, both the African king and his servant are portrayed with the same care and humanity as the others gathered. In this era, Ethiopian and Egyptian churches sent representatives to the 1439–41 council in Florence, and African pilgrims and scholars made their way to Rome. The third-century St. Maurice and sixteenth-century St. Benedict (known as Benedict the Moor) were regularly depicted as black African saints—their likenesses grace the exhibition. A Congolese delegation was received in Lisbon in 1484, the Moroccan ambassador visited Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, and Morocco signed a trade treaty with the Dutch Republic in 1609–10. As for commerce, Portuguese traders who began to explore routes around Africa brought back not only spices, gold, and ivory, but also human cargo.

Let’s talk about the origins of slavery in Renaissance Europe. In 100 CE, the city of Rome swelled to a population of more than one million people, many of them slaves from conquered territories. These slaves built architectural wonders, grew food, and served in Roman households, enhancing the city ’s prosperity through their labor. Some slaves were able to buy their freedom, and their children could become citizens. Rome in the fifteenth century was a different story. In her catalog essay, Kate Lowe writes that for many, “slavery in Europe during the Renaissance can be seen as just a stage in a life and not a life sentence.” Upon the master or mistress’s death, an enslaved person was often set free or given a fixed number of years before their freedom was due, and they might be bequeathed clothing, possessions, or even money tied to future plans, such as setting up a house or getting married.

The word “slave” originated with the Slavs, who made up the largest population of enslaved people; before the mid-fifteenth century, only a small percentage were African. The “process of being freed within a generation,” Lowe explains, meant that “freed and free Africans were socially mobile and very quickly appeared in professional and creative positions in Europe.” The turn of the sixteenth century saw “the first black lawyers, the first black churchmen, the first black schoolteachers, the first black authors, and the first black artists.”

Within the exhibition, Spicer revisits one particular painter as potentially one of those artists. Taking apart the name of Francesco Torbido di Marco India (il Moro), who lived circa 1482–1562, she explains that Torbido is Italian for “cloudy ” or “veiled,” il Moro means “the Moor,” and India refers to his father ’s native land, India, which was often confused with Ethiopia on maps of the time. Spicer sees the 1520 portrait in this exhibition as a possible self-portrait displaying the painter ’s ancestry.

Visual evidence confirms and confounds the documentation of Africans in Europe during the Renaissance. People representing all social statuses populate a Lisbon waterfront in the View of a Square with the King’s Fountain in Lisbon, from around 1570. Blacks and whites are equally represented and interact in the chaotic marketplace, whose mayhem is in stark contrast to the foreground, where a black diplomat wearing silver pantaloons, a feathered cap, and a cape emblazoned with a red cross rides his decorated horse along the waterfront. Behind the elegantly attired man, townspeople are as likely to be brawling as giving each other a hand: Red jars and jugs are falling to pieces everywhere, and at the market’s edge stands an enslaved black, chains trailing to the ground. Dead center, apart from the crowd, is a black man in a pickle: His face is occluded by a jar that may have broken or been broken over his head. No one is paying any attention either to his distress or to the diplomat’s high-stepping procession. Though the latter ’s attendants look nervously back at him, his regal presence is not causing the slightest stir, lending credence to this racial mix as not being uncommon.

The confounding aspect for scholars is the absence of figures whose historical eminence is otherwise well-documented. To remind us of what has been lost, an empty Renaissance-era frame hangs on the wall halfway through the exhibition. Spicer considers this frame a placeholder for Juan Latino, an enslaved man who attended to his master ’s son at the University of Granada while earning himself both a bachelor ’s degree in 1545 and a master of arts in 1557.

Latino’s very name is a moniker from his talent with languages. A play devoted to his life, The Famous Drama of Juan Latino (circa 1610), describes how he enjoyed a long career as a poet and Latin professor at the university ’s cathedral school, where he courted and eventually wed a rich (and white) bride. In the play, he is freed upon marrying her, and later an admiring prince commissions Juan’s portrait for his display of illustrious men. While such collections of portraits exist, none has been identified as that of Juan Latino. Perhaps one is out there yet.

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters, cites the Renaissance adage that “portraiture magically makes the absent present.” The show’s drawings, sculptures, and etchings bear witness to many who may have been overlooked. One of the most arresting portraits in the exhibition is a painting by Annibale Carracci from around 1580. This fragment was separated from a portrait of the servant’s mistress—glimpses of the missing woman’s fringed collar are distinctly more ornate than the servant’s hairnet and plain shawl. While Juan Latino’s portrait didn’t make it, and this woman’s mistress’s has been lost, Portrait of an African Slave Woman endures. And what a portrait it is. Hers is the most direct and no-nonsense gaze depicted in the exhibition; mysterious as her circumstances are, she engages us. You can’t say that about the rulers looking nobly past you, the religious subjects adoringly attending the Christ Child, or even citizens going about their business in the public square. The self-awareness of the enslaved woman and her ironic expression captures our attention, though viewers of her time were supposed to focus on the gold clock she holds in her hands. In Italy during the Renaissance, it was the clock that was uncommon.

About the Author

Mary Kay Zuravleff is a novelist whose honors include the American Academy ’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award. Her third novel, Man Alive!, is forthcoming in fall 2013.

Funding Information

“Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” closes at the Walters Art Museum on January 21. It then will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum, where it can be viewed from February 16 to June 9, 2013. NEH provided $40,000 in funding to support the planning of the exhibition.