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.”
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.
article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson