If you move beyond the curatorial presentation of the exhibition, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe to the

substance of the exhibit, we see what we already know: that in spite of history’s failure to often record the presence of Africans and Native peoples, the art of its time confirms our presence. Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe consisted of more than 60 works in 3 small, cozy rooms at Princeton University and included prints, paintings, decorative objects, sculpture, and etchings dating from 1480 to 1605. The exhibit’s accompanying brochure states the items in the exhibition “map a history of art, politics and race that few museums have addressed in full-dress style.”

Although I have seen pieces or photos of pieces like some in this show, I had not seen this narrative expressed as an isolated and complete thought. I found the curator to be successful in their intent as I was absorbed by the beauty and tranquility of the exhibit. However, I did not forget this was the curator’s interpretation of selected items purporting to ‘represent’ the African presence. Through maps, books on travel, costumes and natural history, I was invited to understand how Europeans perceived Africans in Europe. I first paused looking at an emblem book containing the phrase “Washing an Ethiopian.” Europeans figured God made Adam and Eve white so the state of being black was viewed as something one would want to remove. Thus the statement, “Washing an Ethiopian,” gained currency in everyday speech based upon the presence of Africans. For me this is evidence that while the exhibit suggests an acceptance of difference ruled, one must acknowledge that so too did hierarchy and preference.

In religious art such as The Adoration of the Magi above dated 1524 there were objects reflecting Africans during the Christian period. Dutch, Italians and others have painted this scene each differently, but all include an African or dark subject. By the dress of the two men off to the left in the photo above, it is not immediately obvious that they are not slaves if you compare their dress to the man in red in the foreground. But the African subject in the blue does

carry a sceptre and is accompanied by “his” slave, according to the catalog. This painting is what I would customary think of as Renaissance art. Except I realize that maybe I unconsciously thought slaves were generally always seen with their masters in Renaissance art. In the second part of the exhibition we see Africans in portraits. By the 16th century there is a refocus on the human rather than the religious. Here I saw portraits of Black children with their masters dressed exquisitely.When these portraits are read, there is a subtlety of implied rank and a suggested favorability to the Master above the beautiful child. by the painter. This section also included the presence of black peasants in etchings from 1564-1565 by Pieter the Elder Brueghel from a lost series. These black peasants confirm black people were in Holland as free people and that by this time, free Africans were living in many parts of Europe in urban centers as surgeons, doctors and professional people. In the final section in the latter 1500’s, diplomatic contacts between Europe, the Congo, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Tunisia were taking place. African Ambassadors were showing up in the Hague in 1609 and 1610 dealing with the Dutch on trade issues. And there are painting of an African Ambassador arriving in Rome from the Congo. The show ends with a sculpture of the Moor, St. Benedict, a black European born of African slaves in Sicily. He was beautified in 1743 and canonized in 1847 by the Catholic Church. By the 17th century, Europe had shifted its attention from Africa to the Americas. “African exoticism,” says one plaque, “had lost appeal and difference became a threat.”

The exhibition encourages viewers to understand that in the 1400’s most of the European slaves were white and that this did change until the 17th century. If the slave was African, they worked alongside white slaves and the possibility of obtaining their freedom was present.To Belgium and Holland in particular the Portuguese brought slaves but slaves had no legal status in these countries. So the images of Africans by Brueghel and Rubens are of real people. We just don’t know who they are. This exhibition helped me think about Africans in a European context and I consciously viewed them from a European curatorial perspective. I say this only because the cover image (above) of a slave/servant African woman was said to be expressing an emotion the curator could not have known to be true. Her image is a fragment of a larger painting that now only contains the sleeve of her master. I remember thinking how could the curator suppose this. I don’t read her lips as saying this. Also in Renaissance Europe, “difference” was not necessarily a prescription for death or a life of toil.Yet it is telling that then trendy sayings existed to describe difference in color. So while “the roles and contributions of individuals of African descent [came] into focus in a variety of ways” as the handout claims, I am not so sure that the power relationship in society was not the

significant factor. There were still kings, queens etc. In fact by inference the exhibit is suggesting that Renaissance Europe accepted differences and therefore society had a better chance to benefit from creative change. For it was not until the 16th century New World that race, the state of being black, begin to carry the negative connotations. I am curious about what you think about these assumptions. Know that I am an art lover and collector not an historian. The lovely thing is that art encourages us to think for ourselves. And that is always a good thing.

The catalog for this exhibit was edited by Joaneath Spice with contributions by Natalie Zemon Davis, Kate Lowe, Joaneath Spicer and Ben Vinson III and sells for $25. You can still get a copy from the Princeton University Art Museum.