BALTIMORE — In a fall art season distinguished, so far, largely by a bland, no-brainer diet served up by Manhattan’s major museums, you have to hit the road for grittier fare. And the Walters Art Museum here is not too far to go to find it in a high-fiber, convention-rattling show with the unglamorous title of “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.”
Visually the exhibition is a gift, with marvelous things by artists familiar and revered — Dürer, Rubens, Veronese — along with images most of us never knew existed. Together they map a history of art, politics and race that scholars have begun to pay attention to — notably through “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” a multi-volume book project edited by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr. — but that few museums have addressed in full-dress style.
Like the best scholarship, the Walters show, organized by Joaneath Spicer, the museum’s curator of Renaissance and Baroque art, is as much about questions as answers, and makes no bones about that. Many wall labels begin with an interrogative, suggesting that a museum visitor’s reading of a particular image carries as much weight as the curator’s.
And, like most ambitious but risky undertakings, it has flaws. There is evidence of budget limitations. Although no corners were cut in getting crucial European loans, the catalog — a good one — has come in a third smaller in size than planned and with signs of changes-at-the-last-minute production.
The presence of a chatty “resource center” midway through the show, with gamelike audience-participation activities on offer, will rile museum purists. (I have no problem with it.) And, in a show that tackles the issue of race head-on, the line between an objective view of the past taken on its own terms and interpretation of it in light of the present can sometimes feel precariously drawn.
But in the end none of this matters. The show is so interesting to look at and so fresh with historical news as to override reservations. It does what few museum shows ever do: It takes a prized piece of art history, one polished to a glow by generations of attention, and turns it in an unexpected direction, so it catches the searching, scouring rays of new investigative light.
Europe’s ties to Africa were ancient but sporadic. Particularly strong bonds were forged during the heyday of the Roman Empire. And in the 15th and 16th centuries, the period covered by the Walters show, they were renewed. True, as early the eighth century a pocket of intercontinental culture had sprung up in Muslim-occupied southern Spain. But it wasn’t until that occupation was coming to a close that a broader exchange began.
By the mid-1400s an expansionist Europe was hungry for new materials and markets, and a globally minded Roman Catholic Church sought new members. Well before Vasco da Gama first sailed around Africa, Portuguese merchants had opened trading depots along its west coast. And enterprising Africans were coming to Europe.
In 1484 a Congolese delegation visited Lisbon on a diplomatic mission, and Ethiopian Christian pilgrims were establishing permanent communities in Rome.
Superficially Africa and Europe had embarked on an age of cosmopolitan rapport, an idea promoted in art. It was during this period that the convention was introduced of including a black African as one of the three foreign kings in images of the Adoration of the Magi. A beautiful early-16th-century Flemish example and one with, exceptionally, two black figures, tenderly particularized, opens the Walters show on a utopian note, with a vision of multicultural harmony.
In reality harmony was rarely associated with Africa in the European mind. Known primarily secondhand from sensationalizing ancient texts, the African continent was often depicted in the Renaissance as a place of freakish beasts and bestial, violence-prone, naturally subject peoples. The attitude found its place in Renaissance decorative objects like oil lamps and door pulls cast in the shape of African heads, and in paintings that routinely included dark-skinned figures as servants or slaves.
Slavery had a long institutional history in Europe, and for centuries most slaves were white, from the eastern Mediterranean and Russia. The source changed with the beginnings of an African slave trade in Europe in the mid-1400s. And the complexion of European art, subtly but surely, changed with it.
We find a hint of this in a minutely detailed late-16th-century painting of a city square in Lisbon bustling with black- and white-skinned figures from across the social spectrum. We find it again in an exquisite drawing by Dürer of a demure 20-year-old black woman named Katharina, a slave in the household of a Portuguese patron the artist visited in Antwerp in 1521. And we find it once more in a fragmentary painting by Annibale Carracci. The original picture seems to have been a portrait of an aristocratic woman accompanied by her female slave. But only the likeness of the slave survives, and her face, with its simmering, level-eyed gaze, is unforgettable.
De Pareja went on to have a painting career of his own, though he is largely remembered as the subject of one of Velázquez’s most magnificent portraits. But in general the names of black sitters in Renaissance paintings — and, no doubt, of black artists — are lost.
Who is, or was, the slightly stunned-looking man wearing drop earrings, a gold chain and pearl-encrusted cap in “Portrait of a Wealthy African,” by an unknown 16th-century German or Flemish artist? Or the regal-looking personage, head swathed in a milk-white turban, in an oil sketch whipped up on a sheet of repurposed accounting paper by Peter Paul Rubens?
Rubens’s sitter is so attractive, we’d love to know his story. And we’d especially love to know the story — the true, gossip-free story — behind the sitter in an Agnolo Bronzino portrait whose name has survived. He’s Alessandro de’ Medici, who ruled Florence for seven years before being assassinated in 1537, and who is thought by historians to have been the illegitimate child of a pope-to-be, Clement VII, and a black or biracial woman.
Alessandro’s dark skin was remarked on by contemporaries, who nicknamed him Il Moro (the Moor), a generic term for African in 16th-century Italy. In Bronzino’s painting the subject’s complexion is inconclusively ruddy. But another portrait, this one of the ruler’s young daughter Giulia, has been cited by some scholars, who point to the child’s black facial features, as confirmation of Alessandro’s ethnic heritage.
Together these portraits probably attest to the reality of African DNA flowing through Medici blood, and through the very center of the European High Renaissance. But they are at least as interesting for the reactions they have provoked. Until recently art history has ignored, denied or at best tiptoed around their racial content, just as it has skimmed over the black presence in Europe as a whole. The Walters exhibition not only asserts that presence, but positions it as a contributing factor to a crucial moment in the forming of European cultural identity.
By the early 17th century that moment seemed to have passed. Europe’s attention turned to the Americas and to Asia. Africa became what it had started out being for Europe: a supply center for natural resources and cheap labor. Old attitudes of fear and disdain toward Africa — still the dominant view in the West — returned and hardened.
So: Renaissance followed by regression is the show’s bottom-line theme. Or is it? One of the saving graces of art — what keeps you coming back to it — is that it isn’t a bottom-line business. You think you’ve come to an end, a conclusion, and there’s always more: the exception, the extension. And so it is in this case: African Europe lived on, in new places, and in new guises.
Toward the end of the show, in a 1599 painting called “The Three Mulattoes of Esmereldas,” we see three dark-skinned men in European court attire but also wearing large gold nose ornaments and holding spears. The painting, now in the Prado, was done in Spanish colonial Ecuador. It depicts a father and his two sons, descendants of African plantation slaves and New World natives, who were leaders of an Afro-Indian community. In this painting, commissioned from an Ecuadorean artist as a gift to Philip III of Spain, they present to Europe as what they are: related, different, equal.
African Europe also continued to flourish on home turf in, among other places, popular religion. The exhibition’s final image is a resplendent 18th-century carved wood sculpture of a Roman Catholic saint, Benedict of Palermo (1526-89), who was born into a family of African slaves in Sicily, led an exemplary life as a Franciscan monk there, and was canonized in 1807.
This saint is sometimes referred to as Benedict the Moor or Benedict the African, and in the sculpture his racial identity is emphatically conveyed: his grave face and extended hand are a rich ebony black, their darkness framed and amplified by the brilliant gilding of his robe.
By the time this sculpture was carved around 1734, Benedict had long since attracted an ardent following, in Europe, in the colonial Americas and in Africa. Today he’s the official patron saint of African-America, with churches in his honor from Bahia to the Bronx. And images of him, no matter how stylistically varied, continue to combine traces of Renaissance Europe and of Africa. In him the two are inseparable, are one.
article by Holland Cotter via nytimes.com