Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, an unprecedented exhibition, explores the world of Renaissance art in Europe to bring to life the hidden African presence in its midst. During the first half of the 1500s, Africa became a focus of European attention as it had not been since the time of the Roman Empire. The European thirst for new markets already in the mid 1400s drove the Portuguese (and subsequently the English and Dutch) to explore the establishment of new trading routes down the west coast of Africa and, by the turn of the new century, into the Indian Ocean. At the same time, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa brought the Turks into military and political conflict with European interests. These elements, along with the importation of captured Africans as slaves, primarily from West Africa, increasingly supplanting the trade of slaves of Slavic origin, resulted in a growing African presence in Europe.

The first half of the exhibition of approximately 75 works explores the historical circumstances as well as the conventions of exoticism that constituted the prism of "Africa" through which individuals were inevitably perceived.

In the second half, attention shifts to individuals, focusing on portraits. These often very sensitive images underscore the role of art in bringing people from the past to life. While some Africans played respected, public roles, the names of most slaves and freed men and women are lost. Recognizing the traces of their existence is a way of restoring their identity.

Extended Information


figures 1, 2, and 3



In the first half of the 1500s, Africa became a focus of European attention as it had not been since the days of the Roman Empire. The European thirst for new markets drove a consolidation of the trading routes established by Portuguese explorers in the late 1490s along the coasts of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. The expansion of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in North Africa resulted in military and political conflicts with European interests in the Mediterranean. These elements, along with the importation of Africans purchased as slaves, primarily from West Africa, resulted in an increased African presence in Europe.

Part One of the show will offer visitors an understanding of the historical circumstances as well as the conventions of exoticism and otherness that constituted the prism of "Africa" through which individuals were perceived. The differences characterizing the relations (and perceptions) of Ethiopia, the Barbary Coast, and West Africa with Europe will be examined, as well as the African presence in Europe as part of the wider African Diaspora.

In Part Two visitors will encounter the individuals themselves, represented in portrayals from life. The power of these images to speak directly to today's audiences is related to the subtle quality of these great examples of Renaissance portraiture. They are rendered with the most revealing sensitivity, bringing home the Renaissance adage that portraiture magically makes the absent present. Africans participated in society in a great range of roles from visiting ambassador to cleric, writer, soldier, peasant farmer to house slave. While many can be identified, the names of the great majority of slaves and freed men and women are lost, their existence only inferred from their defined roles and the rare depictions by artists. Recognizing the traces of their existence, their agency and, where possible, achievements is a way of restoring their identities.

Part One: Perceptions

The Continent of Africa and Its Inhabitants

The rapid gains in European knowledge about Africa are reflected in increasingly accurate maps and eyewitness reports. Admiration for the genius of ancient Egyptian pyramids was coupled with a fascination for evidence of the "savage" lifestyle witnessed along the coasts of sub-Saharan Africa. Allegories of "Africa" as one of the four parts of the inhabited world, as that of Martin de Vos (fig. 4), are intriguing distillations of these assumptions. The European viewpoint will be complemented by that of the Moroccan writer and diplomat known in Europe as Leo Africanus. Captured by Christian pirates, given to Pope Leo X, and freed, he was subsequently the author of Description of Africa, the first work of a living African or Muslim to be printed. His text provides the exhibition with one of its primary historical resources.

Africans in Christian Art

The Roman Empire encompassed North Africa, and Cleopatra and Hannibal, among others, stimulated the European imagination in the Renaissance, as did mythological figures such as Andromeda and the Libyan sibyl. While there are occasional representations of black Africans as the offspring of Noah's son Ham, the remarkable late medieval transformations of the third king in Adoration scenes (fig. 5) as well as the legendary Egyptian saint Mauritius (fig. 6) into black Africans are markers of an expanding worldview. The importance of Africa in the earliest Christian tradition is signaled in the New Testament account of Philip's conversion of the Ethiopian official, a story that first gained prominence in the 1500s, as well as the acknowledgement of St. Augustine's North African origins and the role of the hermit saints in Egypt for early monasticism.

figures 4, 5, and 6


The Institution of Slavery

Slavery was an accepted institution throughout the Mediterranean world and the poignant image of the bound captive as a symbol of the restraints of malignant fortune could be black or white. However, with market shifts in the 1400s, the African trade began to replace the traditional European source, the Slavic countries. Slaves were typically purchased for work in the house or shop, except in Spain and Portugal, where large numbers were used for agriculture, including sugar plantations in their South American colonies. While the daily life of European households was rarely depicted, assumptions about household slaves were projected on the past: Italian artists such as Caveliere d'Arpino painted Judith (fig. 7) with a black slave, although there is no mention in the Bible of the race of her servant. There are, however, representations of urban public spaces including Africans, the most remarkable being one of the Lisbon waterfront (fig. 8), where Africans of many stations actually dominate the scene.

figures 7 and 8


Color: Cultural Marker or Aesthetic Metaphor

In the 1500s blackness could bring to mind associations with evil and sin within Christian teachings, the sinister effects of disease, the invading armies of Islam, the elemental otherness of a visible minority, or, on the  other hand, the excitement and fascination of an exotic "other." An intriguing aspect of this last viewpoint is the subtle rethinking of the inferences of color for sculpted objects made from materials such as onyx, black marble, and bronze. The results may be spectacular, as in the tired but magnificent physique of a black court jester (fig. 9) or the svelte Black Woman at her Bath, possibly from the Parisian workshop of Bartholemy Prieur (fig. 10).

figures 9 and 10


Part Two: Individuals and Identities

Slaves and Servants

Paintings representing real individuals in servitude show them primarily in domestic roles, as the maid in the fragment (p. 1, fig. 1) of a larger portrait by a North Italian artist, or children depicted virtually as exotic pets as in Titian's stunning portrait of Laura dei Dianti and her black page, and Portrait of Juana of Austria with her Black Slave Girl (fig. 11) by Cristovao de Morais. Probably all the extant studies of Africans drawn from life, such as those by Michelangelo, Carracci, and Veronese (fig. 12) are of slaves. We will be straight-forward about the paucity of documentation in attempting to reconstruct something of their lives. Here, the astonishing sensitivity of great artists (Veronese, Titian, Michelangelo, Durer, and others) comes through most poignantly in bringing these men, women, and children to life.

Free People of African Descent

Free descendants of slaves who entered the mainstream at all levels of society joined Africans who came to Europe on business and for study. Visitors will encounter Alessandro de Medici (fig. 13), ruler of Florence and the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII and, as some critics contended, a Moorish slave, as well as his daughter Giulia de Medici, identified in a portrait by Pontormo (p. 1, fig. 2) in the Walters' collection.

A range of figures from court retainers to country people to artists will be included here, encompassing an unidentified, but wealthy black man, presumably attached to a European court (p. 1, fig. 3) or the Africans among the peasants in a famous series of heads said to be after Pieter Bruegel (fig. 14). What do you make of an important portrait painter in Venice whose nickname was “il Moro?” We will include his fabulous self portrait for audiences to consider for themselves. In a few cases, an empty frame will bring home the loss resulting from the absence of an image. One of these will be Juan Latino, a black professor of Latin and writer in Spain.

Diplomats, Merchants, and Rulers

Portraits of diplomats or rulers from Africa or of African descent complete the picture of the African presence in Renaissance Europe. Some were commissioned in Europe, as that of Don Antonio Manuele de Funta (Antonio Emanuel Ne Vunda), the ambassador from the Congo to the Pope (fig. 15), others were portrayed in Africa at the behest of European patrons as was Mulay Ahmed, king of Tunis, ally of Emperor Charles V. Then there are extraordinary cases of African rulers who recognized the powerful role of European illusionistic portraiture as truly "representational" and commissioned European-style portraits of themselves to send to Europe. Emperor Dawit II of Ethiopia (fig. 16), courted by the Portuguese for trading rights and honored as the living embodiment of Prester John, the legendary black priest-king of a distant empire. It had been hoped since the time of the Crusades, that Prester John would aid Christian Europe against Islam if only he could be located. Copies of the original portrait, commissioned by Dawit, were widely coveted for a series of "illustrious men and women." Most striking is the arresting portrait (fig. 17), executed as a European "likeness" by an Ecuadorian painter and sent to the Spanish king by Don Francisco de la Robe, headman of a community in Ecuador founded by escaped slaves. It represents Don Francisco and his sons in European-style dress, adorned with striking gold ornament, traditional, local markers of status.

figures 15, 16, and 17

Audiences will conclude their visit encountering an astonishing polychrome statue of St. Benedict of Palermo (the Moor). Born to slave parents in the 1500s, he rose to be the head of a small hermitage in Sicily. Venerated in Spain and in African communities in South America, he was beatified in the 1700s, the period to which the earliest extant images should probably be dated. He was canonized in the 19th century and continues to be widely venerated, personifying the ongoing impact of African Europeans of the 1500s.

figure 18







1. Annibale Carracci (attributed). Portrait of a Black Servant (Fragment of larger portrait), ca. 1580s, oil on canvas, 24 x 12 in. (60.96 x 30.48cm). Leeds, private collection.

2. Jacopo da Pontormo. Portrait of Maria Salviati de Medici and Giulia de Medici, ca. 1539, oil on panel, 34 5/8 x 28 1/16 in. (88 x 71 cm). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

3. German or Flemish. Portrait of a Wealthy Black Man, ca. 1540, oil on panel, diameter 11.7 in. (29.7 cm). Private Collection, Antwerp.

4. Adriean Collaert after M. de Vos. Allegory of Africa, ca. 1588. engraving, 8 3/8 x 10 ' in. (21.3 x 26 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

5. William Stetter. Adoration of the Three Kings, 1526, oil on panel, 34 3/8 x 21 ' in. (87.3 x 54 cm). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

6. South German. St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, ca. 1515-20, oil on panel, 26 8/10 in. x 27 6/10 in. (68 x 70 cm). Private Collection, Greenwich, Connecticut.

7. Cavaliere d'Arpino. Judith with the Head of Holofernes,1603-6, oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 24 1/8 in. (47.94 x 61.28 cm). Berkeley Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley.

8. Portuguese. Chaferiz d'el-Rei in the Alfama District, Lisbon, ca. 1560-80, oil on panel, 36 5/8 x 64 3/16 in. (93 x 163 cm). Private Collection, Lisbon.

9. Orazio Mochi, (attributed). Black Court Jester, 1600-1610, bronze, 6 9/10 in. (17.62 cm).The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

10. Barthelemy Prieur (or circle). Black Woman at her Bath, ca. 1590, bronze, H: 12in. (30.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., promised gift.

11. Cristovao de Morais. Portrait of Juana of Austria with her Black Slave Girl,1555, oil on canvas, 39 x 31 7/8 in. (99 x 81 cm). Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

12. Paolo Veronese. Study of a Black Boy Eating, ca. 1570s, black and white chalk on paper, 6 x 7 in. (15.5 x 20 cm). Mia Weiner, Norfolk, Connecticut.

13. Bronzino (workshop replica). Portrait of Duke Alessandro de Medici, ca 1553, oil on tin, 5 7/8 x 4 in. (15 x 12 cm). Uffizi, Florence.

14. Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Two Flemish Peasants (Africans), ca.1564-5, etching, ca. 5 x 7 3/8 in. (13/3 x 18.7 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

15. Italian. Portrait of Don Antonio Manuele de Funta, Ambassador of the King of the Kongo to the Pope,1608, etching and engraving, 10.8 x 7.8 in. (27.5 x 19.7 cm). Baltimore Art Museum, Baltimore.

16. Italian after Cristoforo d'Altissimo. Emperor Dawit II of Ethiopia, ca. 1590, oil on paper attached to panel, 5 1/8 x 3 15/16 in. (13 x 10 cm). Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

17. Andres Sanchez Gallque. Portrait of Don Francisco de la Robe and His Sons Pedro and Domingo, 1599, oil on paper, 36 x 68 7/8 in. (92 x 175 cm). Madrid, Prado deposited in the Museo de America.

18. José Montes de Oca (attributed). Saint Benedict of Palermo (the Moor), ca. 1734, polychrome and gilt wood with glass, 124.46 x 87.95 x 41.91 cm. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis.

The exhibition was made possible by a generous grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ed and Ellen Bernard, the Maryland Humanities Council, Cynthia L. Alderdice, Constance R. Caplan, Joel M. Goldfrank, Stanley Mazaroff and Nancy Dorman and an anonymous donor. In-kind support was provided by Christie’s.