Jacopo Zucchi’s allegory of the discovery of America, 1585 (detail).
Jacopo Zucchi’s allegory of the discovery of America, 1585 (detail). Villa Borghese

King, servant, coral diver

Africans have been present in Europe for centuries. If you keep your eyes peeled as you stroll around the art museums of Europe, you’ll encounter them depicted in a wide variety of roles.

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting worked as a cultural editor and currently heads the visual arts division in the City of Zurich’s Culture Department.

Starting in the USA, protest actions against racism, such as the recent “Black Lives Matter” movement, have drawn attention to discrimination against people of colour in our society. This has led to a critical re-examination of many public monuments, and some artworks are now being looked at in a different light as well. In Europe, racism towards black people has a slightly different background than it has in the USA, and as a result it has manifested in different ways. This is due, firstly, to the fact that the process of differentiating “Europe” and “Africa” (and the corresponding designations) began shortly before the Common Era, and the exchange between the two continents goes back at least to Roman times. There were also slaves from Africa in Europe. But while initially the Americans’ relationship with black people was defined exclusively by slavery, the relationship between Africans and Europeans has always been more complex. Historian Olivette Otele has traced the hitherto unacknowledged and very multifaceted history of “African Europeans”. Her book of the same name connects the dots from antiquity to the present day, and prompts us to take a closer look at where black people appear in European society, and in what roles. Among other things, Otele sketches out the background of a number of stereotypes that still persist today, some of which are racist.
Olivette Otele’s book African Europeans, published in October 2020.
Olivette Otele’s book African Europeans, published in October 2020. Hurst & Co

People of colour in European art collections

According to Otele, an attentive browse through the art collections of Europe can also reveal a few lessons about these stereotypes. Let’s start in the Etruscan section of the Vatican Museums. Our tour takes us past a display case containing a particularly eye-catching cup, a “kantharos” with two faces. One of the faces is European, the other is African. The African face is thought to represent the Egyptian ruler Busiris. The white man supposedly represents Heracles, who was captured by the pharaoh Busiris but managed to free himself. However, this information can only be found tucked away in the museum’s online catalogue; it’s not presented in the display case of the well-patronised Vatican Museums. A missed opportunity, because this vessel, made in Greece in the 5th century BC, could explain a great deal about the cultural exchange between Europe and Africa. It shows, for example, that the craftsman who fashioned it had probably encountered Africans who were living in Athens at the time as slaves or mercenaries. In this respect, it reveals more about the physiognomies of the Africans in ancient Athens than about the appearance of the pharaoh.
“Kantharos” ceramic vessel featuring the heads of a European and an African, 480-470 BC.
“Kantharos” ceramic vessel featuring the heads of a European and an African, 480-470 BC. Musei Vaticani
From the early Middle Ages onwards, Saint Maurice became a much-used template in spreading the depiction of black people north of the Alps. According to his martyr legend, Maurice, a Roman commander who lived around 300 AD and opposed the persecution of Christians by Emperor Maximian after the crossing of the Alps, came from what is now Sudan. The Maurice legend, and its associated relics, spread north from the ostensible place of his execution at Agaunum (now the site of the Abbey of St Maurice in Valais). In Magdeburg Cathedral, which is dedicated to Saint Maurice, there is a famous statue dating from the early 13th century that shows him dressed in knight’s armour and with a clearly African physiognomy. This raises the question of potential models for the Magdeburg stonemason. One trail leads to the cosmopolitan Sicilian court of the Hohenstaufen king Frederick II – a number of Africans held high-ranking positions in Frederick’s army. With this entourage, Friedrich cut a swathe through the Germanic realm at the beginning of the 13th century. This may have been how some people north of the Alps encountered black people for the first time.
Statue of Saint Maurice in Magdeburg Cathedral, ca. 1240/50.
Statue of Saint Maurice in Magdeburg Cathedral, ca. 1240/50. Wikimedia / Mar Yung
As a result, the subject of the Three Wise Men is central to the depiction of black people in European art. Although these men are not mentioned in the Bible as kings, but referred to only very briefly as “Magi from the east” (Matthew 2:1), and then only in one of the four Gospels, a substantial cult of the Three Kings developed in the Middle Ages. They were given their names as early as the 8th century. This was especially so after the putative relics of the kings, now reduced to the magic number three and given individual names, had been transferred from Constantinople to Cologne via Milan, which underlines their important role as trappings of the religious legitimation of temporal power. In Cologne, the Three Kings became the patron saints of this important diocesan city and from then on were an element in the power politics of the German emperors. Both north and south of the Alps, from the 15th century onwards the black king, usually called Balthasar, appears in adoration scenes featuring the Three Kings. Famous early examples are Hans Multscher’s Wurzach Altar (1437) and the later Three Kings Altar (ca. 1470) by Hans Memling.
The Adoration of the Magi, outer wing of the Wurzach altar, 1437.
The Adoration of the Magi, outer wing of the Wurzach altar, 1437. Wikimedia / Gemäldegalerie Berlin
Coats of arms, among other things, played a role in spreading this iconographic convention far and wide, thus establishing a connection to Saint Maurice (the Cologne city coat of arms, however, contains only their crowns, and there is no black king in Stefan Lochner’s Three Kings Altar from Cologne Cathedral dating from around 1435/40). In the late Middle Ages there was also the interpretation, which was justifiable in terms of power politics, according to which the Three Kings were supposed to represent the three continents known at the time – Europe, Africa and Asia – and this soon established the presence of a black king as the normal practice. Since the three kings were also particularly venerated by the Medici ruling in Florence, Florentine painting features many examples of depictions of the Magi. One interesting feature to note here is the roles in which black people appear, especially since it can reasonably be assumed that they were present earlier in Italy than north of the Alps, simply because of Africa’s geographic proximity to the Italian peninsula. In the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1420) by Lorenzo Monaco from Siena, only one of the figures in their entourage is a black man. In Benozzo Gozzoli’s Three Kings frescoes (1459-64) in Florence’s Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, a black man is prominent in the picture, but only as an archer, probably part of the bodyguard.
Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca. 1460.
Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca. 1460. Wikimedia / Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
And in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s interpretation of the subject from 1487, the only black man in the picture is assigned a servant role. But as early as 1459, in his triptych Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, who was active in Mantua, depicted not only people in the entourage as black, but also one of the kings as a black man. Towards the end of his life, in 1506, Mantegna painted a variation on the subject, again with one of the kings as a black man. It is notable that here, Mantegna is no longer painting a stereotyped figure. The black king is depicted as an individual, albeit somewhat less concisely rendered than the white people in the painting. This tallies with Olivette Otele’s findings. According to Otele, the European views of black Africans in the 15th and 16th century were more nuanced than one would have assumed centuries later, and this was also reflected in their increasingly differentiated portrayal. The role of the church in this should not be underestimated. Since black people were seen as prospective believers, it was initially considered natural to treat them as human beings of equal rank. Pope Martin V’s condemnation of the slave trade in 1425 may have reflected this perspective. Some of his successors, notably Calixtus III and Alexander VI, on the other hand, had no qualms about allowing first the Portuguese in 1456, and then the Spanish in 1493, to trade in slaves. As a result, in Europe’s port cities and centres of commerce at least, Africans were increasingly present mostly as enslaved workers. However, according to Otele, their status and the way they were treated by their owners could be very varied, and even quite respectful.
Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1495-1505.
Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1495-1505. Wikimedia / Getty Center
The growing presence of black people in Europe certainly explains why artists like Mantegna or, a generation later, Dürer, were able to render African physiognomies so much more accurately. In addition to his depiction of the kings, in which the black king is very prominent, but is also positioned a little to one side, Albrecht Dürer’s most notable surviving works are the portrait drawing of an African dating from 1508, and that of an enslaved African woman who was baptised Katharina (1521). We know for a fact that Katharina’s portrait was created in Antwerp. Dürer met her in the household of a Portuguese merchant, who evidently valued her. But in addition to these portraits, Dürer also left physiognomic studies and writings that depict black people as ugly and qualify them with terms that must today be characterised as racist.
Katharina by Albrecht Dürer, 1521.
Katharina by Albrecht Dürer, 1521. Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Black gondolieri

Along with Jan Mostaert’s painting of a black man dating from around 1525, Dürer’s portrait drawings are thought to be the oldest known portraits of black people in Europe. Dürer must also have encountered a number of Africans, both men and women, during his stay in Venice. The powerful maritime republic maintained trade contacts with North Africa. As a tour of the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice demonstrates, depictions of black people increased in number in Venetian painting of the 16th century. Vittore Carpaccio’s large-format painting Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto (1496) is one of the early examples. In the foreground of the picture the black gondolier stands out, and suggests the presence of Africans in everyday (working) life in Venice as a matter of course. Further evidence for this may be seen in the fact that the painting was commissioned for an important meeting place for the Venetian power elite, the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista.
Black gondolier in the painting Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto, 1496, (detail).
Black gondolier in the painting Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto, 1496, (detail). Gallerie dell’Accademia Venezia
The depictions of Africans in Paolo Veronese’s work, especially in his The Feast in the House of Levi (1573), are particularly interesting. This painting, one of the largest of its time, was also commissioned, this time for the refectory of the monastery of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where it replaced a Last Supper by Titian that had been destroyed in a fire. In Veronese’s theatrical scene, there are no fewer than eleven blacks, most of whom are cast as servants. The fact that they are sumptuously dressed suggests that these attendants also functioned as exotic staffage – prestigious appurtenances – and thus as status symbols for their owners. Olivette Otele flags up the problematic issue of “exceptionalism”. The term refers to the social phenomenon whereby the privileged role of some black people, especially in Renaissance Europe, can tend to obscure the difficult conditions under which most slaves eked out an existence. Veronese at any rate also clearly depicts the black people in his paintings as individuals, whereby their marginal position in relation to what is happening, ironically, draws the observer’s attention to them, with some of them seeming to comment on the scene. Evidently, their presence was nothing very exceptional for their contemporaries either. This is apparent from the records of the Venetian Inquisition against Veronese’s painting, which failed to meet the strict guidelines. But the accusation was directed primarily against the presence of “jugglers” and the prominently positioned dog; the Africans in the picture are not mentioned at all.
Black man in the painting The Feast in the House of Levi, 1573 (detail).
Black man in the painting The Feast in the House of Levi, 1573 (detail). Gallerie dell’Accademia Venezia

Colonial history(ies) in oil

From Veronese onwards, the history of black people in European art picks up pace, whether as representative specimens in Rubens’ Great Last Judgment or in Tiepolo’s frescoes, notably in the Würzburg Residence, where the four continents – Europe, Africa, Asia and America – are depicted. Over time, one also encounters more frequently works that show black people in an exoticised, discriminatory or openly racist manner. In 1594, Cornelisz van Haarlem painted his Bathsheba with a black maidservant. The very black skin is clearly only there to make Bathsheba’s fair skin appear even lighter. In Jacopo Zucchi’s 1585 allegory of the discovery of America, the blacks, cast as hard-working coral fishermen with sculpted physiques, populate a lush paradise for pampered tourists before such a concept even existed, with exoticism and sexism mixed into a very special cocktail.
Jacopo Zucchi’s allegory of the discovery of America, 1585.
Jacopo Zucchi’s allegory of the discovery of America, 1585. Villa Borghese
In Michele Cammarano’s historical paintings of battle scenes dating from the era of the Italian colonial regime in Africa in 1896, as exhibited in Rome’s National Gallery, we encounter blatant racism. Black people are depicted as brutish warriors. At the same time, the painter savours the beauty of their half-naked bodies, putting them on show in a voyeuristic manner. The fact that such works, which, from the vantage point of the present, are more than problematic, are not hidden away in the gallery’s repository is the first step towards opening a discussion about them, and more generally about the racist image that many people in Europe had then, and still have today, of black people as the embodiment of inferior “others”. Art provides abundant illustrative material for this, as also shown in some examples from Switzerland – in works from the studio of Vaud history painter Charles Gleyre or those by Frank Buchser, for instance. Both of these painters, however, based their depictions primarily on impressions from their trips to Africa and North America. While the exoticising aspects, at least, of their paintings may appear problematic from today’s perspective, at the time they were created these works also had a mediating dimension, since such journeys were the privilege of a minority. But that doesn’t mean they are harmless.
The Battle of Dogali, Michele Cammarano, 1896.
The Battle of Dogali, Michele Cammarano, 1896. Wikimedia / Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea

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