Q&a -- Joaneath Spicer

Looking Behind The Paint

A Walters Art Museum curator takes a look at unusual aspects of Renaissance art: how it portrayed Africans in Europe and the arbitrariness of social status at the time

June 01, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

An exquisite drawing of a beautiful woman by Michelangelo. A winsome portrait of a child by Pontormo. A serpentine bronze sculpture of Venus.

These and other images were typical of those produced by artists of the European Renaissance, when painters and sculptors brought a new realism to depictions of the human form through close observation of nature and an expanding world view.

Yet what is most striking -- though not immediately apparent -- about Michelangelo's figure is that the beautiful woman who looks out at us from the drawing is likely of African descent -- as is the child in Pontormo's portrait and the Venus of the sculpture.

Today we often don't recognize these figures as Africans, yet such images were not uncommon in Renaissance art, says Walters Art Museum curator Joaneath Spicer, who is planning a major exhibition for the fall of 2010 about the hidden black presence in Renaissance Europe.

The show brings together about 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and printed books that explore how Africans were portrayed in 15th- and 16th-century art. Last week, Spicer talked about her nearly decade-long project and what she hopes museum-goers will take away from the exhibition: What drew you to this subject?

I've been thinking about this for years. But in terms of a specific artwork, an important point of departure was our portrait by Pontormo, a 16th-century master, of Maria Salviati with a little girl who I think is Giulia de' Medici.

When the painting came to the Walters there was no child in it and the woman had not been correctly identified. Only in the 1940s was the painting X-rayed and then it was recognized that the child had been painted over, probably sometime in the 19th century. Edward King, the director at the time, identified Maria Salviati as the woman, and initially he thought the child was her son, Cosimo de' Medici. But later scholars disputed that because the child is so obviously a little girl with braids and curls. It sounds like a detective story.

Yes, it is. Because Maria Salviati didn't have any girls. She was, however, the guardian of two little girls. We know what one of them looked like; the other was Giulia de' Medici, daughter of Alessandro de' Medici, the assassinated ruler of Florence.

Now here's where the plot thickens. Allessandro was born out of wedlock and after his death he was castigated by critics who claimed his mother had been a servant or slave of Moorish descent in the Medici household.

So this would make our little Giulia the first formal portrait of a girl of African descent in European art. And that's very exciting. So that was the germ of the idea for an exhibition?

After that, I became increasingly aware -- both through my own research and that of others -- that there are an extraordinary number of images of Africans in European art in the 16th century. It just seemed there was so much wonderful material that could be used to open a window on their lives. How can an exhibition do that?

Traditionally, a drawing of an African child by the great 16th-century Venetian painter Paolo Veronese has been valued by curators and art historians for what it says about Veronese as an artist. But maybe we should turn that around, maybe the drawing will tell other stories that will speak to us more directly if we think about it from the point of view of a black boy who spent part of his life as a slave in Venice. How much do we actually know about the lives of such people?

It's hard to tease these things out because we can't always be certain who the subjects were and because we often have less documentation on them than for other subjects of the period. We may have an image and documents, but we can't tie them together. So we have to speculate. We have to construct scenarios. But just because we can't prove everything does not mean we shouldn't try to enlarge the way we view these images. We just need to be honest about what we don't know. Because the subject is an important one, and we owe it to the material and to the people the artworks depict. Was slavery common in 16th-century Europe?

It was a very different time. You had significant numbers of captive black Africans imported into Europe, but you also had white slaves from the traditional sources in Eastern Europe and also Europeans being taken captive in North Africa.

The whole sense of social status was so arbitrary then. Not all Africans were slaves, and not all slaves were Africans. You even had somebody like Cervantes, who was captured and taken to North Africa as a slave before he was finally ransomed. So they didn't make the kind of associations between race and status that were made later, because there were so many permutations.

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