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Strangers in a Strange Land

Walters explores the role of Africans in the world of Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci

Photo: by an unknown artist, License: N/A

by an unknown artist

Public Square with the Kings Fountai

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

At the Walters Art Museum through Jan. 21, 2013

Anyone who’s taken a 10th grade American history class is generally familiar with the contours of African-American history, which dates back to the 17th century. But the experience of Africans in Europe goes back much, much further, to the days of Hannibal, from modern-day Tunisia, and Egypt’s Cleopatra, the last of the pharaohs, who are among the many early Africans in European lore. It’s a thousands-of-years-old history, full of changing dynamics of military strength, cultural exchange, and power. By the time of the Renaissance, Africans were a significant presence in Europe, from servants and slaves to royal court members and diplomats.

And yet, when most Americans think of the Renaissance in Europe, it is an entirely white picture, populated by the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and Shakespeare. And so the Walters Art Museum’s grand and impressive exhibit, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, is a vital tool in filling out that picture, making it more accurate, and connecting it more with our own diverse culture. It is, in fact, striking to note how European attitudes toward Africans in 15th and 16th centuries—the combination of fear and fascination, seeing them as both an opportunity and a threat—mirror white America’s historic attitudes toward African-Americans.

The exhibit is broken into two main sections. The first is a broad overview of Europe’s perception of Africa and Africans, including a series of maps that shows the continent slowly coming into focus as European explorers gradually worked their way down the west African coast. The second, which is often more interesting from an art-history perspective than a historical one, explores the representations and lives of specific Africans in Europe, mostly through a series of period portraits.

Africans had been a presence in European cities before the Renaissance, typically as sailors in port cities or as servants for the wealthy, but several events combined to expand the African presence and influence in Europe in the late 15th century. Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama was the first to navigate around the southern tip of Africa and to India, vastly increasing trade along the route, particularly in African port cities. Around the same time, Christian forces retook the Iberian Peninsula from its longtime Muslim rulers, and North Africans were expelled and dispersed more broadly throughout the adjacent European countries. Also, in the late 15th century, a delegation from Congo—an interior African kingdom largely unknown to Europeans—whose king had been baptized by Portugese missionaries, arrived in Lisbon and was the subject of broad fascination.

Many of the pieces included in the exhibit show Africans in a religious context, in order to demonstrate the universality of Christ’s message. In some, Africans are depicted as one of the three wise men who have come to see the newborn king. In another, an African soldier wearing a traditional shaggy, red headdress is depicted at Christ’s right hand as one of the disciples at Emmaus.

While the religious depictions were clearly intended to espouse a Christian message, nonreligious depictions more accurately reflect European perceptions of Africans. One sculpture, in which an African man on horseback fends off a lion with a club, reflects the European understanding of Africans as brave warriors and excellent horsemen. A nude sculpture of a curvy Cleopatra cavorting with an asp reflects the perception of Africans as lusty.

And while high-minded Christians imagined Africans as part of Christ’s flock, common depictions of sin, the devil, and hell were all black. In one particularly telling piece, angels dig up the corpse of a dead Ethiopian to replace the leg of an ill Christian, which seems to reflect the belief that Africans had no soul to be disturbed by such an intrusion.

While the first section of exhibits shows the range of European thought on Africans in the era, the portraits seem to give a more accurate sense of how most Africans lived. Many are servants or slaves depicted alongside their masters. There is one portrait—notable for being the only known one in the world—of a wealthy African European wearing a gold chain and a pearl earring. The absorbing “Public Square with the King’s Fountain” features a teeming city alive with mischief and includes four Africans. One is apparently drunk and is being carted off by two Jewish policemen, identified by yellow badges on their coats. A man and woman are on a small boat with white passengers: He is rowing while she is singing to entertain them. Finally, there is a more elegant man with a noble marking on his cape riding a horse. Such a status is rare enough that historians assume this is Joao de Sa Panasco, who was born a slave and became a court jester before being elevated to gentleman courtier and a royal valet.

The show ends with a wooden sculpture of another exceptional African in Europe, Saint Benedict of Palermo, an uneducated and illiterate son of Sicilian slaves and a devoted Catholic who was at first recognized for the stoicism with which he endured humiliation. He would become recognized as a great thinker in Christian theology and a healer of the sick.

The Walters’ exhibit, an enormous undertaking which will head to Princeton University next, wisely seems to refrain from making any conclusions for the viewer. It merely amasses representations which point to a broad and varied experience of Africans in Europe, but still minimal connection across cultures. With exceptions, most Africans had not become human equals in the European mind. Despite thousands of years of history, the chasms of culture and geography were no better broached on the continent than they were when the Europeans and Africans arrived on American shores.

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