In Depth: Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe is the first exhibition to bring together a wide variety of works of art in diverse mediums that bear witness to the multiple aspects of the African presence in Europe in the Age of Exploration. This selection of over sixty European paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, books, and decorative objects, dating from around 1480 to around 1605, includes memorable images and riveting portraits of Africans, some of whose identities are known and others who remain anonymous. Organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and comprising works from major European and American museums and private collections, this compelling exhibition has been hailed by the New York Times as “a visual gift, with marvelous things by artists familiar and revered . . . along with images most of us never knew existed. Together, they map a history of art, politics and race that few museums have addressed in full-dress style.”

Joaneath Spicer, James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters, whose scholarship and long-term engagement with the subject have resulted in this unprecedented exhibition, has divided the works on view into two parts—the European context and the individuals themselves—with a painting from the Museum’s collection illustrating the approach. 

Adoration of the Magi, attributed to the Netherlandish painter Gerard David and painted around 1514, includes an African Magus, following a tradition begun in the late Middle Ages, together with his African servant. These figures, like those of the other Magi, are not stock representations but surely portrayals of real people, painted from life. In the present state of our knowledge, however, it is impossible to say who these men are.  Although slavery had no legal status in Antwerp, where this work was executed, Portuguese merchants who settled there were allowed to bring their slaves. Could these Africans be from the household of a Portuguese merchant, presumably the white-haired man playing the part of the lead king? This is the kind of question that Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe poses and, in connection with other types of documents, seeks to probe.

In the first part of the exhibition, we learn about the European context and its influence on the perception of Africans in Europe. Assumptions about Africa on the part of Europeans of the time involved a mixture of traditional views inherited from the ancient and medieval worlds and new observations from the Age of Exploration. Early maps and books on travel, costume, and natural history bring alive the knowledge about the continent available to readers of the era. Another group of objects concerns Africans in Christian art, from the tradition mentioned above of showing the third Magus in the Adoration as an African to the depiction of the third-century martyrs Saint Maurice and his Theban legionaries as black Africans, as well as the depiction of Saint Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Counselor. 

Another aspect of the European context is attitudes and stereotypes involving color. Prejudices about black skin are illustrated by, among other  objects, a helmet visor from the Prague court that renders the face of the Muslim enemy as even more fearsome by depicting him as a black man. In the famous emblem book by Andrea Alciati, the concept “Impossible” is illustrated by Europeans who try to scrub a black man’s skin white, reminding us that Europeans were quite certain that God had made Adam and Eve white; everyone whowasn’t was discolored. In the 1500s the demands of collectors for something new and different appears to be behind the appearance of a positive black aesthetic in the visual arts. Small sculptures in bronze, wood, and dark stone, intended to be appreciated from close up by a collector, creatively exploit the black or brown material used; one depicts a sensuous bathing woman looking in a mirror, another a court jester, his posture reflecting frustration and defiance.

The social conditions of European slavery are also explored. In the later 1400s the majority of slaves in Europe were white (although this would change by the seventeenth century), and there was a possibility of eventually gaining one’s freedom. A vivid painting from a private collection shows the waterfront in the Alfama district of Lisbon, where the African quarter can be seen to include black inhabitants of all classes, from slaves in chains to a nobleman wearing the Cross of Santiago, the mark of the Order of Saint James.

The second part of the exhibition focuses on individual Africans. There is a legacy of outstanding portraits of Africans from this period, when the lives, experiences, and points of view of the individual came to the fore. In the first section, slaves are seen with their masters. A fragmentary portrait of an African slave woman (see cover), all that remains today of a larger portrait with her mistress, includes a clock that may be more than a memento mori—with time and patience this enslaved maid may be freed. Representations of slaves by themselves include two anonymous Venetian servants or slaves recorded in intimate drawings by the painter Veronese. 

The roles and contributions of individuals of African descent come into focus in a variety of ways. For example, the presence of Africans among the Flemish peasantry is reflected in prints after Pieter Bruegel’s designs, while the Italian artist Francesco Torbido, il Moro (Francesco with a “clouded” appearance—also known as the Moor, a term meaning, in Italy, a dark complexioned African, sometimes with the connotation of a Muslim) has left us a stunning self-portrait. A portrait by an as yet unidentified Flemish or German master of a wealthy African who, from his clothing, is supposed to have held a post in a European court, poses more questions than the painting can answer. A fascinating group of works concerns one of the most prominent men in Europe at the time, Alessandro de’ Medici (1510–1537), the first duke of Florence and—according to his contemporaries—the illegitimate son of the future Pope Clement VII and a Moorish slave. A portrait of his daughter, Giulia de’ Medici, with her guardian, Maria Salviati de’ Medici, represents the next generation of this aristocratic family.

Jacopo da Pontormo, Italian, 1494–1557: Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, ca. 1539. Oil on panel, 88 x 71.3 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902 (37.596). © The Walters Art MuseumThe last section of the exhibition contains portraits of African rulers and diplomats and includes a painting from life by Peter Paul Rubens, along with three portraits of African rulers commissioned by the Medici family for their gallery of famous men in the Uffizi. Emperor Dawit of Ethiopia, featured in the portrait gallery of the humanist Paolo Giovio and disseminated in the publication of that portrait series, was perhaps the most celebrated of these rulers; his presence recalls the close ties between the Orthodox Christian Church of Ethiopia and Rome, where Ethiopia, like Catholic nations, maintained a religious foundation and sent its clerics for study. The exhibition concludes with a post-Renaissance polychrome wood sculpture of Saint Benedict of Palermo (1526–1589), the son of African slaves in Sicily, who joined the Franciscan order; he was beatified in 1743 and canonized in 1807. The Renaissance European of African descent whose impact is felt most broadly today, Benedict the Moor is now venerated throughout the world. 

In the past Princeton has benefitted from two remarkable exhibitions from the Walters Art Museum: Gates of Mystery: Art of Holy Russia (1992) and Book of Kings: The Morgan Library’s Picture Bible (2002). This new collaboration will present gorgeous, intellectually stimulating, provocative works of art and will help the Museum support the University’s commitment to making issues related to race a part of every student’s education.

Betsy J. Rosasco
Research Curator of European Painting and Sculpture


Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Edited by Joaneath Spicer with contributions
by Natalie Zemon Davis, Kate Lowe, Joaneath
Spicer, and Ben Vinson III
144 pages, 8 x 10 in.
130 illustrations

Available at the Museum Store
Retail $29.95, Friends members $26.95


Captions (from top to bottom):

Workshop of Gerard David, Netherlandish, ca. 1460–1523: Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1514. Oil on panel, 64.2 x 82 cm. Princeton University Art Museum, museum purchase (y1932-34).

Jacopo da Pontormo, Italian, 1494–1557: Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, ca. 1539. Oil on panel, 88 x 71.3 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902 (37.596). © The Walters Art Museum