The goal of the exhibition is more subtle than mere detection and enumeration. Rather, Spicer and her colleagues want to say as much as they can about the actual people who are represented, elevate them from anonymous figures to actual beings, whenever possible. It isn’t easy, and much of the process involves speculation, including perhaps too heavy an assumption that when a face looks particular and individual, it must have been modeled on an actual person.
But the process is worth the effort, as the fascinating story of a painting by Jacopo da Pontormo demonstrates. The image includes a dignified woman of indeterminate age directly facing the viewer, and a small girl with tightly curled hair staring out of the painting to the right. In 1902, when the painting was acquired by Henry Walters, there was no little girl, just the woman, who was identified as a poet. Subsequent X-ray analysis revealed the girl, who had probably been painted out to make the image more attractive to collectors. Conservation returned her to view, and scholarship in the 1990s identified the girl as the daughter of the presumably mixed-race Alessandro de’ Medici, whose dark skin and tightly curled hair can be seen nearby in a small painting by Bronzino.
Recovering the girl, and her connection to one of the greatest families of the Renaissance, underscores the complexity of race in this era. Not all avenues were open to people from Africa or of African descent. But many were, especially if they allied themselves, or had blood connections with the rich and powerful.
That would change, dramatically, later in the 17th century. The Spanish were systematizing race in the New World, with complicated caste rules. Religious dogmatists were putting Old Testament tales such as Noah’s cursing of his son Ham to work as justifcations for brutal treatment of Africans. One particularly noxious papal theologian even forged documents to spread his slanders. Slaves were introduced early into the English colony in Jamestown. The fascination and wonder inspired by Africa would shift to a more brutal, exploitative sense of power, exercised through colonialism. As Spicer writes in a catalogue essay, “In the 1600s, the ‘exotic’ other becomes simply the ‘other.’ ”
In an interview, Spicer said the Walters tried to interest other museums in this exhibition, but with the exception of Princeton University, could find no takers. That’s unfortunate. “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” is a powerful kernel of what could be a blockbuster show. It is a fertile fusion of academic research with material objects. But it could go much further. There’s enough material here to anchor a major traveling exhibition, and fill out a catalogue three times the size of the one the Walters has published.
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe
is on view at the Walters Art Museum through Jan. 21, 2013. For more information and ticket prices, visit www.thewalters.org.