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.

And yet this period, if by no means a golden age for African-European relations, is defined as much by wonder as prejudice. Europe was discovering Africa, and despite fear and suspicion, curiosity was in play, too. Africa wasn’t entirely unknown to Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The Greeks and Romans had given Europeans various templates for understanding Africa, a mix of myths, geographical confusions and occasional sightings of truth. Dido, a Carthaginian queen, was a legendary figure, embellished and romanticized by the Roman writer Virgil. Cleopatra, though of Greek lineage, was an archetypal femme fatale from Egypt. Both appear in works included in the exhibition.

“Africa always produces something new, never before seen,” reads a European adage quoted in the wall text of the exhibition. From the age of the Greeks onward, India and Africa were often interchangeable “other” lands, offering Europeans strange menageries of incredible creatures, including fantastical fusions of man and beast. Saint Isidore, an early 7th-century Christian writer who was still popular in the Renaissance, helped keep alive a belief in Ethiopian “artabants,” who “walk on all fours like goats,” and pygmies, who lived “in mountainous regions of India, near the Ocean.”

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.

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