By the end of a new exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, the viewer is put in a position similar to that of an old-fashioned racist of a century ago: scrutinizing faces and hair for signs of “blackness,” as if the truth of every portrait is lurking in the complexion of its subject, as if all that matters is whether hair kinks or curls, and whether full lips and flat noses are just variations from the European mean, or telltale signs of African heritage. “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” will make you a race detective, in a way that is at first unsettling.
The exhibition of painting, sculpture, maps and prints is focused on 73 potent rather than visually sumptuous objects. If not always a feast for the eyes, the show is a compact and dense lesson in how race was conceived between the late 1400s and the early 1600s. It was a complicated period. In the 15th century, slaves were overwhelmingly “white,” brought from lands to the East, including Central Asia and Russia. Africans circulated and lived in Europe as emissaries and ambassadors, came for educational opportunities, participated in the dissemination of Catholicism, and occasionally rose to high rank in European courts. One of the Medici dukes of Florence was probably the son of a slave or servant of African descent, and former slaves achieved renown as playwrights, scholars and artists. But the same period also brought the codification of racism in the New World, the rigid association of dark skin with newer, crueler forms of slavery, and the invention and spread of vicious religious justifications for racism and enslavement. Shakespeare’s “Othello,” written near the end of the period covered by this exhibition, gives one a good sense of the contradictions and complexities of African life in a Renaissance context.