Similar humanoid oddities are found in the margins of a late 15th-century map displayed in the exhibition, which includes a notional representation of Africa. And yet, while they are projections of fantasy, informed by dubious history and legend, and depict human forms from far away and unknown places, none of the invented races (or species) look particularly menacing.
Throughout much of this period, ignorance and curiosity coexist, and desire circulates relatively freely. Christian dualism meant that blackness was consistently associated with an array of dark meanings, evil, ugliness and the negation of all that was associated with light. And yet some of the exhibition’s highlights demonstrate a profound sensitivity to the beauty of African features and color. Some of this can be dismissed, no doubt, as an extension of the exploitative sexuality that accompanied slavery, especially domestic slavery, in which women were particularly vulnerable. But a 1521 drawing by Albrecht Durer shows a black woman named Katharina with touching objectivity, a fully realized figure, staring down, perhaps with fatigue, perhaps exhausted with her condition, perhaps merely lost in thought. She is attractive, but there is nothing lurid about the image.
Aesthetic and sexual appreciation aren’t necessarily innocent. Several objects blur the lines between person and object, especially small statuettes of attractive black women that could be held in the hand and appreciated in private. A magnificent painting by Titian, showing a sumptuously dressed aristocratic woman attended by an equally appareled black slave child, proved to be too expensive to ship from a private collector in Switzerland, and couldn’t be included in the exhibition, says curator Joaneath Spicer.
That’s unfortunate, because the Titian demonstrates the peculiar status of black children as luxury objects, which would linger on for centuries and recurs as late as 1911 in Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which a small black boy is a lingering final image of old-guard wealth and privilege. It’s also unfortunate because the exhibition, which has a handful of spectacular pieces, wants more painting.
A 1579 Italian portrait of a man attended by his servant, who seems to be a young adolescent of mixed race, is almost a substitute for the Titian, but the servant is older, less of a pretty thing to be cosseted and dressed up and exhibited like a luxury object. But the handsome boy raises other questions: His ease, grace and casual proximity with his master immediately suggests that he may well be the man’s illegitimate son — as does a certain physical resemblance. He isn’t white, but his race — is he black, or of Middle Eastern descent? — is open to question.
And so, after a lesson in the complexities of race, the viewer is invited to search out signs of racial identity, to speculate on whether the servant behind the figure of Judith in a painting by Giuseppe Cesari is black, or merely cast in shadow. The point isn’t simply to tabulate the apparent population of people of African descent in a room full of images. In fact, black faces aren’t that hidden in Renaissance art, where they appear not only as servants and slaves but also in recurring roles, including one of the Three Wise Men, or kings, who pay homage to the Virgin Mary.