Thursday, March 15, 2007

African History in Europe: Blacks in the Renaissance - Part I

Portrait of an African Man by Jan Mostaert (ca. 1520-1530)
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Netherlands

Today we enter one of my favorite periods in European history regarding the role that Africans and blacks played in European society___ the Renaissances. Many of us are familiar with the term “renaissance” and how it unleashes images of great progress in literature and art and architecture and music and philosophy and science and human rights and… Wait a minute___ advancement of human rights during the Renaissance? Scratch that last one Dude. O.K. Five out of six ain’t bad, oder?

In all seriousness, after spending several hours, days, and weeks refreshing the old grey matter on the European Renaissance(s) of the 15th-17th centuries I have come to realize that I have 1). Forgotten a lot of stuff or 2.) Never knew much about it in the first place. That doesn’t make it any less interesting for me and hopefully for you my readers as we explore together some new stuff that I have dug up on a glorious era for some and a catastrophic historical period for millions of others.

First I would like to start with a 16th Century painting of a Renaissance man who looks a lot like my late great-great-great-great uncle Guiseppe from southern Italy, who somehow turned up in New Orleans (Louisiana territory) back in the early 18th Century. Then we will have an opportunity to review the writing of some top historians in the field, namely Dr. Kate Lowe of the Queen Mary College (University of London) and Dr. John K. Brackett of the University of Cincinnati (Ohio, U.S.A.) and several other experts in the fields of history and art and literature.

So, who is the black guy in the painting by the
16th Century Dutch artist Jan Mostaert? Well, no one seems to know since Jan is long dead, most of his work was destroyed in the great fire of Harleem back in 1576, and the families that have owned this piece of artwork down through the centuries ain’t talking. However, this is what the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) Press and Publicity Office had to say after acquiring the painting in July 2005:

Rijksmuseum acquires unique Renaissance panel by Jan Mostaert
7 July 2005

The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam has acquired a unique portrait of an African man. The panel Portrait of an African man, painted by Jan Mostaert and dating approximately from the period 1520-30, is the only independent painted portrait of a black man in the Renaissance. The BankGiro Loterij, the Mondriaan Stichting, Vereniging Rembrandt co-facilitated by Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, the VSBfonds and the Rijksmuseum Fonds contributed towards the acquisition of the panel, purchased for € 600,000.

An independent portrait of a black African, appearing so early in the 16th century, is absolutely unique. Black kings were regularly depicted in the 15th and 16th centuries in representations of
The adoration of the Magi, but portrayals of Moorish kings in such paintings were generally very stereotypical. It is not known who is represented on the panel just acquired. There are indications that he was associated with the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen or was an attendant of Charles V. His pose, his rich clothing and other details are evidence of a successful assimilation within the cultural standards of the European Renaissance.

The rich clothing worn by the subject of the portrait, the gloves, the sword and the embroidered bag point to Spanish-Portuguese origins and are evidence of the considerable status he must have had. The pilgrim’s insignia on his hat, of Our Lady of Halle (south of Brussels, where Burgundy and Hapsburg pilgrims journeyed), the sword and the fleur-de-lis on the embroidered bag are clues that, in time, may possibly provide more information about the man’s identity.

The painting will be given a prominent place in the ensemble devoted to Mechelen and Brussels– seats of centralised power in the Netherlands in the 16th century - in the exhibition Renaissance and reformation in The New Rijksmuseum (from 2008).

The panel can be viewed from 8 July to the end of August in the Philips Wing. After that, the portrait will become part of the collection of Early Dutch Paintings on loan to the Boijmans-Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. The painting will also be on show as part of the exhibition Black representation: Africans and Creoles in Dutch fine art (Zwart verbeeld: Afrikanen en Creolen in de Nederlandse beeldende kunst) (working title) planned for 2008 in De Nieuwe Kerk.


The viewpoint of the origins and status of the man depicted in Jan Mostaert’s painting as expressed in the Rijksmuseum press release is in agreement with some of the views expressed by Renaissance historians who have recently done research on the subject of the status of black Africans in Renaissance European culture and society. In September 2001 (we all remember that month, don’t we?) there was a very important meeting of scholars from several disciplines at Oxford University to discuss the role of black Africans in the context of European History. Four years later there was another conference held in Frankfurt, Germany (ref: Challenging Europe: Black European Studies in the 21st Century) that brought together some of the best experts from several academic disciplines to discuss the subject further through workshops and lectures. Thanks to the staff of the Black European Studies Project at the Johannes Gutenberg Universtiy – Mainz, Germany we have been allowed to use some of their materials in our own blog project about black history in Europe.

Dr. Kate Lowe, co-editor along with T.F.Earle, of the excelent 2005 reference work
Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge University Press), submitted her proposal for a presentation at the BEST (Uni-Mainz) conference. Here is an excerpt from that July 2005 paper:

It is of course absurd to treat black Africans as a homogeneous group in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as it is absurd to talk of Europeans in the Renaissance period. These concepts only have value as oppositional or contrasting terms, which is how they are being used here. Although stereotypes relating to black Africans were undoubtedly already in existence before the Renaissance, it appears to have been detrimental to the European perception of the black African that the first sustained influx of black African slaves (from the 1440s onwards) into Europe took place at this momentous time of white, European self-definition. The European definition of civilisation depended upon an
Aristotelian typology for assessing ‘alien’ people, and dividing them into the civilised and the barbarian.

This division permeated the terminology of Renaissance Europe, so that a distinction could be made between a black African slave who was selvaticus (wild or savage, that is someone who came directly from Africa) and casanicus (domesticated or home-born, that is someone who had been born in Europe). But did contact with and knowledge of Europe necessarily bring ‘civilisation’ to black Africans who were living there in the eyes of Europeans? Or was a black skin in itself a barrier to becoming European? This paper will focus on a few examples of black Africans in Renaissance Europe, both free and enslaved, who can be seen to be interacting with or assimilating to Renaissance life and culture, and attempts will be made to assess European comments on them and responses to them. These examples also introduce a sample of the types of material available – descriptions in chronicles and travel accounts, portraits, jest books, donor panels, orphanage and tax records – and highlight some of the difficulties involved in this sort of research. The examples come from Portugal, the Netherlands and Italy and are documentary, textual and visual.

They encompass contradictory fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European written responses to high-ranking Africans at the Lisbon court, a sixteenth-century Netherlandish [Dutch] portrait of a seemingly completely assimilated African gentleman in European dress, jokes by and against a sixteenth-century black Portuguese court jester, the inclusion of a black African donor in a late fifteenth or early sixteenth-century Italian painting of The Coronation of the Virgin, and the cultural and religious assimilation of a black slave couple in Florence in the 1470s. The conclusion must be that in the majority of cases assimilation was not sufficient to guarantee acceptance or inclusion for black Africans in Renaissance Europe, and that even when they learnt and conformed to European and Christian sets of behaviour, they were still regarded and labelled as African.

I am working on a large project on sub-Saharan Africa and sub-Saharan Africans in Europe during the Renaissance, 1440-1650.

Suggestions for questions for the workshop: Representing black European history OR Empirical research: subjects and objects

1. Which areas of black African life were envied by Europeans in the early modern period? What was considered positive?

2. Were formal or informal mechanisms of exclusion more damaging to black African life in early modern Europe?

3. Why has there been more art historical and literary than historical research on black Africans in Europe in the early modern period? Why has so little historical research been carried out on black Europeans? What are the main problems connected with carrying out this research?

4. Discuss the role of the Catholic and Protestant churches in the lives of black Africans in Europe in the early modern period.

5. Why were/are all Western European countries in denial about the black presence in Europe for hundreds of years?

6. How much difference was there between Western European countries in their treatment of black Africans in the early modern period?

Next posting: Blacks in Renaissance Europe – Part II (coming soon)

Please see our links to Parts
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (in German), 6, and 7 of this series on black history in Europe if you have not already read these articles (blog posts).

Related online resources:

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Portrait of an African Man by Jan Mostaert
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam - National Museum of Art and History

Jan Mostaert painting July 5, 2005 press release by Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam)

Cambridge University Press
Black Africans in Renaissance Europe
Edited by T.F. Earle and Kate J.P. Lowe - Cambridge University Press, June 2005

Dr. Kate Lowe (bio) – Professor of Renaissance History and Culture, Queen Mary College, University of London

Black European Studies Project – Johannes Gutenberg University (Mainz)
Challenging Europe: Black European Studies in the 21st Century (conference paper)

University of Michigan
Success and Failures of Human Rights in Europe – Univ. of Michigan News 1995

Wikipedia references

European Renaissance, Jan Mostaert, history of Harleem (Netherlands), Margeret of Austria (1480-1530), Charles V (1500-1558), Adoration of the Magi (religious art), Moors in Medieval Spain, Aristotle

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Anonymous said...

How come nobody has posted a comment since 2007? Blacks in Rennaissance Europe is really very important because it turns out that as europe was defining itself by the standards of Aristotlean taxonomy and decididing what makes a people civilized they did not bother to delve into the 'real' culture of the African blacks they enslaved in millions. In fact one could argue that they tried to obscure or ignore those aspects of the culture of the sub Saharan people that may have at least humanized them, instead emphasized a lot of the unusual practices which were by no means universal to the subSaharan people. If you have any other interesting books on the subject , let me know.

BRE said...

Dear anonymous visitor,

In fact we are planning a new series of posts about black and African history in Europe for February-March 2008. The 2007 Black History Month in Europe project attracted a lot of attention and feedback from readers (see blog archives from Feb-Apr 2007). Please visit the homepage of "Jewels in the Jungle" during the first week of February to learn more about this year's group project.

Thanks for your visit today and for your request to share more information about this important period in world history. I will examine ways in which the group can share our research resources with the online public.

Anonymous said...

An issue that has intrigued me since I was a child.
Why has no one posted anything someone asked? Because this subject has not been publicized as other renaissance issues have. Then as now it seems anything that involving people of dark skins is simply not important or noteworthy.
However I think this type of research is long overdue. I have tried myself to delve into this and subject from the American side and believe you me as in this book the subject matter is very rare and difficult to find.
Kudos to the authors

Elizabeth Ravenscroft

Anonymous said...

I commend you on your work and would like for you to point me in the right direction as far as good books to read, amd historic personalities. It is important that we deal with these issues as we are facing a serious threat against our human worth. This is still a issue. A global issue. Please visit my blog at:

BRE said...

To Yaseen:

Follow the links to references and related articles at the end of each post about Black History in Europe. There you will find plenty of additional reading material.

Anonymous said...

I'm an Africana Studies minor. And I've taken several Africana Studies classes but none of them have talked about the exploration of Africans during the Renaissance. In my classes we mainly discuss and analyze African American history such as slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Before I read this blog the idea about Africans being active as explorers during the Renaissance had never accured to me. I think this is a wonderful and informative blog that should be heavily advertised.

BRE said...

Thank you very much for your kind words re: this brief series of posts about black Africans in Europe during the Renaissance. It is amazing that this aspect of European (and African) history still does get the attention that it deserves in institutions of higher learning. As you have expressed a strong interest in African Studies please pursue this unique subject further and share your findings and thoughts with fellow students, teachers and people intersted in world history.

Thank you for your visit and my apologies for not having published new material to the blog in such a long period of time. Hopefully I can rectify that small problem within the next weeks and months.

Anonymous said...

Our class here at Indiana University is taking a look at your BLOG. You have a lot of "food for thought" on this issue and we are being challenged to find more scholarly sources that support your claims. thank you for making this available

Paul said...

Our class is taking a look at your African History in Europe BLOG. This is very interesting. We are being challenged to find more scholarly sources that support your claims. thanks for keeping this online

BRE said...

Dear Paul and the folks at Indiana University:

There are a number of scholarly resources at the end of each post in the series. The book "Blacks in the Renaissance" by Kate Lowe and T.F. Earle in the UK is a great place to start (there is a new paperback edition available since Dec 2010). You should also follow the link(s) to the Black Studies in Europe project at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Work backwards through my posts on this subject until you find the first post in the series (February 2007).

Again, thank you for your interest and good luck with your research. Let me know if you guys intend to publish your own research and opinions about this subject to the Web.

thebus said...

Hi this is very informative, thank you for posting. I am working on a production of Othello and have been researching Venice during the late 16th century. A contentious question seems to be whether Othello (whether Sub-Saharan or North African) would have been accepted as an equal in the Venetian society and whether he would have been seen as an eligible man for a high society Venetian woman.

BRE said...

You are very welcome Thebus and good luck with your production of Othello. I believe the scholarly references in this may be a great help in answering your question(s) re: social acceptance of European blacks, North Africans and sub-Saharan blacks in Venice during the Renaissance period.

Thank you for visiting. I am always amazed that people continue to find some of my past writing about black and African history in Europe down through the ages useful and enlightening.

Anonymous said...

thank you for posting this segment of African history. would like to know more about black composers in Europe at that time.

BRE said...

Dear Anonymous,

I unfortunately do not have much information about classical music composers and musicians of African heritage who lived and performed in Europe during the Renaissance period. However, a brief online search using the words "black history Europe composers" did turn up some leads to websites and blogs specializing on the subject.

Good luck with your research on what is clearly a very interesting topic in world history.