From Kongo to Othello to Tango to Museum Shows

From Kongo to Othello to Tango to Museum Shows


Robin Cembalest

Jacopo da Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, ca. 1539, oil on panel.


Artists and scholars are taking increasingly nuanced approaches to tracking the image—and influence—of Africans in Western art

In 1902 the Walters Art Museum acquired a Pontormo painting of an Italian noblewoman, Maria Salviati, dated ca. 1539. Back then it was considered a portrait of a woman whose hands were “in funny places,” as Gary Vikan, the museum’s director, puts it. Then in 1937, restorers removed some over-painting—and discovered a child was there. That child was assumed to be a portrait of Maria’s son, Cosimo de’ Medici.

And Then He Was a She
Now curators say the boy was a girl–Giulia de’ Medici. The daughter of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, who was believed to be the son of a black female servant, Giulia is thought to have been the most prominent European woman of African descent at that time.

Darkness Visible
This discovery helped inspire “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” an inventive show at the Walters that enlists familiar faces of art history to spotlight lesser-known ones in social history. Focusing on the period between 1480 to 1610, an era of increased contact as trade routes expanded, diplomats traveled more widely, and Africans were imported to Europe en masse to serve as slaves, the show includes works by Dürer, Rubens, Pontormo, and Veronese, among many others, depicting Africans living in or visiting Europe. The museum describes the show as an effort to restore an identity to individuals who have been invisible–in various senses of the word.
The show uses representations of slaves in Europe to find out who they were, how they lived, and what their depictions say about Renaissance society. A Caracci portrait of a slave woman is a fragment of a double portrait of her owner, of whom a bit of veil remains. She is holding a clock, meant to announce her mistress’s Christian concern for the quick passage of time…

Read the entire article here.

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