JONATHAN D. SARNA
Tablet Magazine, February 18, 2016
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe
Old master portraits open windows into the lives of African individuals from all levels of European society
PRINCETON, NJ –The Princeton University Art Museum presents Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, an exhibition exploring the presence of Africans and their descendants in Europe from the late 1400s to the early 1600s and the roles these individuals played in society as reflected in art. Africans living in or visiting Europe during this time included artists, aristocrats, saints, slaves, and diplomats. The exhibition of vivid portraits created from life—themselves a part of the wider Renaissance focus on the identity and perspective of the individual—encourages face-to-face encounters with these individuals and poses questions about the challenges of color, class, and stereotypes that a new diversity brought to Europe. Aspects of this material have long been studied by scholars, but this exhibition marks the first time the subject has been presented to a wider American public.
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from February 16, 2013 to June 9, 2013, and will feature over 65 paintings, sculptures, prints, manuscripts, and printed books by great artists such as Dürer, Bronzino, Pontormo, Veronese, and Rubens. Organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, the exhibition includes artworks drawn from major museums and private collections across Europe and the United States, including works from both Princeton and the Walters.
“The exhibition focuses new attention on an important but poorly understood aspect of Western history and the history of representation and thus continues our commitment to expanding the borders of scholarship and public understanding,” according to Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward. “This exhibition affords an exceptional opportunity to discover great works of art and encourages us to reflect on our understanding of cultural identity both past and present.”
The presence of Africans and their descendants in Europe was partially a consequence of the drive for new markets beginning in the late 1400s. This included the importation of West Africans as slaves, supplanting the trade of slaves of Slavic origin. There was also increasing conflict with North African Muslims and heightened levels of diplomatic and trade initiatives by African monarchs.
The first half of the exhibition explores the conditions that framed the lives of Africans in Europe, European perceptions of Africa, the representation of Africans in Christian art, blackness and cultural difference as well as the aesthetic appreciation of blackness, and slavery and social status. The second half shifts to the individuals themselves as slaves, servants, free and freed people, diplomats and rulers—the range of roles in which Africans found themselves in Renaissance Europe—concluding with a focus on the remarkable presence of St. Benedict (the Moor) of Palermo, widely revered in his lifetime but also one of the African-Europeans of the 1500s with the greatest impact today. The trajectory traced by the exhibition is thus one of movement from the margins to the center, both in societal terms and in representation, enabling us to understand not only broad shifts but also the role of specific Africans in Europe.
“Recognizing the African presence within Renaissance society opens a new window into a time when the role of the individual was becoming recognized—a perspective that remains fundamental today,” said exhibition organizer and Walters Art Museum curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art Joaneath Spicer. “We are just beginning to understand the contributions of people of African ancestry in that society, so the exhibition raises as many questions as it answers.”
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe was organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from Judith McCartin Scheide and William H. Scheide, Class of 1936, sponsors of the spring 2013 exhibition program. Generous funds have also been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts; the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; the Jannotta-Pearsall Family Fund of the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole; and the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund. Additional support has been provided by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the Department of History, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, the University Center for Human Values, and the Council of the Humanities, Princeton University; the Apparatus Fund;;and the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund. Further support has been provided by the Program in Renaissance Studies and the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University, and by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. Programming is made possible, in part, by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, Jacopo da Pontormo, ca. 1537
Free descendants of slaves were found at all levels of European society. The little girl with her guardian is Giulia de’ Medici, daughter of Alessandro de’ Medici, duke of Florence, the latter thought to be born of a union between Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici and an African slave. Giulia enjoyed an aristocratic lifestyle and her descendants thrive today. The painting is considered to be the first formal portrait of a child of African ancestry in European art.
Portrait of an African Slave Woman, Annibale Carracci (attributed), ca. 1580
Paintings representing real individuals in servitude primarily show them in domestic roles, such as this maid from the fragment of a larger portrait. She has remarkable presence, sensitively conveyed by the artist through the ambiguity of her facial expression.”
Chafariz d’el Rey in the Alfama District (View of a Square with the King’s Fountain in Lisbon), Netherlandish, ca. 1570–80
This scene of daily life in Lisbon is astonishing for the concentration of Africans from a range of social and economic levels, from a slave in chains to the knighted man on horseback. Black people made up nearly 10% of the city’s population, more than anywhere else in Europe at that time.
A publication comprising five essays and an illustrated checklist accompanies the exhibition. Published by the Walters Art Museum, the soft cover book is $29.95.
About the Princeton University Art Museum
Founded in 1882, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country. From the founding gift of a collection of porcelain and pottery, the collections have grown to more than 72,000 works of art that range from ancient to contemporary art and concentrate geographically on the Mediterranean regions, Western Europe, China, the United States, and Latin America.
Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. The Museum is intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, offering a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art, and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture.
The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.
Please direct image requests to Erin Firestone, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations, Princeton University Art Museum, at (609) 258-3767 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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