Let’s play a quick game of word association: Renaissance … Man? Michelangelo? Rebirth? Whatever comes to mind, it is unlikely that a phrase such as “ethnic diversity” or a word such as “blackness” presents itself readily in relation to an epoch dominated by dead white males. A visit to the Princeton University Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” (which will run from Saturday, February 16 through Sunday, June 9), unveils a Renaissance Europe marked with greater cultural diversity than one might expect.
“Revealing” appears in the exhibition’s title with good reason. At its core, “Revealing the African Presence” seeks to expose what often remains hidden from the hallowed legacy of the European Renaissance: the place of the non-European or “Other” — in this case Africa — in both Renaissance maps and minds. The exhibition consists of more than 65 objects including manuscripts, prints, sculptures, and paintings ranging from the late 14th to the early 17th century.
To understand just how profoundly Africa is overlooked in typical descriptions of the Renaissance, consider the Medici family. Most people concur that the Renaissance began in the late 1300s in the Italian town of Florence. At that time, one wealthy family ruled Florence and dazzled the rest of Italy with its power, the Medici. The family was a tremendous patron of the arts and supported illustrious philosophers, poets, and architects. Particularly strong supporters of the visual arts, they encouraged the famed Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello. Without Medici assistance, perhaps Sandro Botticelli would have never painted his iconic Venus on a scallop shell (“The Birth of Venus”). Absent the Medici, perhaps Michelangelo would not have created his famous statue of David.
Though the Medici are studied extensively, written into history books, and talked about in classrooms, few know that one ruler of the Medici dynasty, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, was visibly different from his predecessors: Alessandro’s mother was of African descent. This meant that nearly 500 years ago, one of the most prominent cities in Europe had a ruler of African ancestry — and few acknowledge this remarkable fact. “Revealing the African Presence,” however, introduces visitors to this forgotten ruler. On display are an oil portrait and a coin bearing his countenance.
Alessandro de’ Medici is not the only significant historical figure of African descent to be featured in this exhibition, nor does the exhibition focus solely on prominent Africans in Europe; museum-goers will find etchings of peasants and slaves alongside paintings of rulers and diplomats.
“Revealing the African Presence” devotes particular attention to slavery, offering a window into the world of African slaves in Renaissance Europe. The experience of a slave in 16th-century France was not identical to that of a slave in antebellum America. First, skin color was not an automatic identification of status; slaves could be black or white. In fact, African slaves were common in Europe only after the 15th century and often worked beside white slaves. Moreover, slavery was not a death sentence. It usually lasted as long as the life of the owner. Consequently, greater social mobility was available to Africans and their children. For instance, the parents of the first European black saint were slaves.
This exhibition offers several kinds of representations of the slave experience. Among them are several oil paintings depicting slaves in opulent dress. In one of these, “Portrait of Domenico Giuliani and his Servant” (1579), master and servant are both dressed handsomely. In fact, the composition of the painting places them in opposition, as if one man is a mirror image of the other. The master, however, is in the act of writing a letter, pen in hand. The servant meanwhile, clutches the missive. It seems that action rather than physical appearance distinguishes slave from master.
Predictably, the assembled works are imperfect accounts of African slaves’ experiences in Renaissance Europe. For instance, in Annibale Carracci’s “Portrait of an African Slave Woman” (1580s), the subject is dressed exquisitely and holds a tiny, elaborate gold clock in her hand. Yet Carracci’s subject wears an equivocal expression. Though she is not openly unhappy, an air of melancholic resignation clouds her face. A 1595 engraving of an imagined scene at a Caribbean plantation reminds us that the words of visual testimonies to slavery were written by Europeans. The engraving depicts a multitude of slaves who labor at a variety of strenuous tasks. Remarkably, no grief, struggle, or fatigue is shown; the laborers seem the embodiment of happy industry. In one corner of the work, a contented sun beams down upon the fields, as if nature itself was pleased with the arrangement and offering its benediction.
Though the exhibition addresses an historical phenomenon, it is also concerned with a more nebulous subject: how cultural diversity was expressed visually more than 500 years ago. Ultimately, every object in the exhibition is an example of how ethnic difference was seen through European eyes. For instance, there is a pair of etchings notable less for what is seen than for what is implied. The works, simply titled “Two Flemish Peasants” (1564), are cameo-style portraits of a man and woman, both simply dressed, both represented with features that register a clear ethnic difference; the subjects are obviously of African descent. What is striking about these portraits is that these subjects are not defined entirely by their race — which is clearly documented nonetheless — but by social status (though documents of prejudice and unprovoked fear are also present in this exhibition). What the etchings do suggest, however, is that the place of Africans in Europe cannot be defined with ease.
“Portrait of a Wealthy African,” an oil painting from the 1530s, exemplifies just how conflicted European attitudes toward Africans could be. The painting’s subject is dressed according to European fashion in clothing that clearly signals his prosperity. Yet the painting seems to struggle against itself, as though a “wealthy African” cannot be understood as wholly European — in addition to his European garb, the man wears a turban and a pearl earring; clear visual cues that would associate him with Africa. The physical appearance of the man also betrays an inability to reconcile success with blackness. Although skin tone is dark, the features are more European and do not conform entirely to the ethnic conventions of representing Africans. Two woodcuts of the Congolese king’s ambassador betray a similar confusion: both take eminent Africans as their subjects, but both frame their subjects with elaborate friezes of allegorical ladies bearing crosses and displaying other trappings of European civilization. It seems the prints are eager to assure their viewer that the ambassador — and by extension the Congo — is firmly contained (in visual terms, literally) by European values, European powers.
Many works in “Revealing the African Presence” are studies in how one culture grapples with a failure to understand an “other” that does not correspond to anything familiar. This struggle takes a variety of forms in the exhibition. One form can be found in representations of Africans in Christian art. In fact, some of the earliest depictions of Africans found in the exhibition are motivated by religious sentiment. One work from the 1480s dramatizes a scene from the life of Saint Catharine, an Egyptian princess. Significantly, the artist seems able to reconcile blackness with Christianity: the skin of this Egyptian saint is alabaster. In fact, Saint Catharine’s complexion is so pale that it almost seems that the painter has suppressed blackness by embracing whiteness beyond reality.
The impossibly white saints are but one example of how to acknowledge difference: adamant denial. Other works in the exhibition chronicle other ways of responding to that difference. One method was to apply old prejudices to what was new in order to render the new (and unfamiliar), familiar. In the Western tradition, for instance, darkness was equated with sin. It took little imagination to assign Africans’ skin color a moral value. The exhibition includes a 1404 Dutch picture-book on Christianity. There, sin is anthropomorphized as an African. Even when morality is not in play, some representations of Africans included in the exhibition are downright ghoulish, as is a Flemish engraving from 1522.
Other European visions of Africa and its inhabitants are driven by a refusal to understand that different culture and instead choose to equate what is unfamiliar with what is exotic. An ornate engraving from 1599, “Gabonese King Receiving Europeans,” exemplifies this tendency. In the foreground two naked Africans are seated while other naked figures dance in the background. The rest of the composition is filled with hordes of naked Africans pushing two perplexed Europeans forward. European ships float aimlessly in the background, a reminder of the Europeans’ distance from all that is familiar.
Still other responses to cultural difference are idealizing, associating blackness with beauty, as in the 11 inch bronze statuette “Black Woman at Her Bath” (1580s). The naked subject gazes into a mirror, her perfect proportions recalling ideals of ancient Greece, her sinuous body an anticipation of Modigliani. No less fetching is the statuette, “Cleopatra and the Asp” (1615). Here too, the subject is invested with all the trappings of Western-style beauty; even the asp seems enamored as it entwines about her arm.
There is no clear description of Europe’s first encounter with Africa and its inhabitants. However as anyone who has chanted “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” will tell you, the 15th century was a time of dramatic geographic expansion for Europe, a time of discovery. There are many reasons for the increased contact between Europe and Africa after the 14th century; voyages of exploration were only one factor in a complex historical equation. Regardless, geographical discovery is the most poignant of these. Though the boundaries of the known world expanded rapidly, the human mind’s capacity for understanding that world grew much more slowly.
The works on view in the Princeton University Art Museum’s new exhibition document this conflict between a newly open world and still closed minds, a conflict defined by confusion, prejudice, and even admiration.
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, Exhibition Opening and Concert: Ornament of the World, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, February 16, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Continues to Sunday, June 9, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.