People passing through the intersection at Charles and Centre streets recently may have noticed an intriguing banner hanging from the wall above the entrance to the Walters Art Museum. The oversize image depicts a black woman dressed in the manner of a 16thcentury Italian lady-in-waiting, who returns our gaze with an expression of ironic, amused self-awareness.
Who is she? Alas, we don't know. The picture is based on a painting attributed to the Italian master Annibale Carracci, probably from the 1580s and possibly completed in Venice, where the artist is known to have traveled during those years and where objects such as the richly ornamented gilt tower clock the woman holds in one hand were common in the homes of that city's wealthy elite.
The painting is one of the highlights of the exhibition "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe," which opens to the general public at the Walters on Oct. 14, after more than a decade in the making, and it opens a window on an aspect of life during that period that is rarely considered in standard art history books and museum shows. Viewed across a span of some 500 years, it offers a view of how people of African descent living in Europe during the Age of Exploration helped shape the common cultural heritage that has come down to us from that time.
The exhibition presents nearly 100 rare and beautiful paintings, drawings, sculpture and objets d'art that illuminate the many roles people of African descent played in the flowering of arts and sciences that characterized the era. Many were slaves or servants, and the woman depicted on the banner outside the Walters probably was attached to the household in which she worked in one or the other of those capacities. But the 15th and 16th centuries also saw the first black lawyers, scholars, churchmen, authors and artists. A number of works in the show depict high-ranking African diplomats or the rulers they served. There's also a stunning sculpture of St. Benedict the Moor, who was born to an enslaved African couple in Sicily during the 16th century and became the first black European saint.
Yet it is the very variety of roles performed by people of African descent living in Europe at that time that makes the Walters exhibition something of a high-risk project. That's because it is impossible to separate our view of the past from our contemporary preoccupation with the issue of race and the legacy of African slavery in this country. A museum exhibition that attempts to tease out how people experienced racial differences and their significance in a far different time and place inevitably runs the risk of bumping up against the heated debate swirling about similar issues today.
For the record, it appears that in Renaissance Europe, race and slavery did not share the same intimate connection that came to characterize later eras. During the period covered by the show, the vast majority of slaves in Europe were from the eastern Mediterranean, Russia and Central Asia; only a small percentage came from Africa. Not only were most slaves not Africans, not all Africans were slaves — as evidenced by the many depictions of people of color whose dress and manner indicated high social status. Moreover, even slaves could look forward to eventual manumission; unlike slavery in the American South, bondage was rarely for life.
But it's not easy to separate our contemporary feelings about race and the legacy of American slavery from our view of the past. And while as a country we may talk a lot about race, in fact we tend to do most of it into a mirror, choosing to exchange views with people who already think more or less just as we do. Any time you talk about issues involving race, there's bound to be controversy — witness the recent uproar over youth disturbances in Towson and the Inner Harbor — which only fuels fears that when museums do it they won't get it right. Museum directors surely know this, which is why so many of them are reluctant to let their institutions become a forum for such discussions.
That's why the Walters deserves credit for the considerable courage it has shown in mounting this exhibition. The great art of the past is part of our common cultural heritage, and it offers us all an opportunity to expand the conversation. The Walters hasn't shied away from that responsibility but instead has embraced it.
One of the fascinating things about the Renaissance was that was it an age of exploration not only of the world beyond Europe but of European society itself — its customs, arts and sciences, economy and profoundly variegated human potential. People of African descent were part of that world and helped shape its legacy for us. It's time they, too, were recognized as participants in the discussion.