This highly original book opens up the almost entirely neglected area of the black African presence in Western Europe during the Renaissance. Covering history, literature, art history and anthropology, it investigates a whole range of black African experience and representation across Renaissance Europe, from various types of slavery to black musicians and dancers, from real and symbolic Africans at court to the views of the Catholic Church, and from writers of African descent to Black African criminality. Their findings demonstrate the variety and complexity of black African life in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe, and how it was affected by firmly held preconceptions relating to the African continent and its inhabitants, reinforced by Renaissance ideas and conditions. Of enormous importance both for European and American history, this book mixes empirical material and theoretical approaches, and addresses such issues as stereotypes, changing black African identity, and cultural representation in art and literature.
Like Alexandre Dumas, the author of Man In The Iron Mask, Lethiere was a man of color. (I am hoping that the presence of this painting in Rhode Island will prove providential. For, RISD was founded by Providence’s art community to celebrate the prize which one of their members – the African American Edward Bannister – won for landscape painting at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.)
Biographical material on Lethiere always mention he was the illegitimate son of a colonial official from the French West Indian island of Guadalupe. However, it was not until 1977, in a five-volume work on Ingres (who had been a student of his) that Lethiere’s mother was described as a mulatto. Judging from the portraits Ingres did of him, however, she was probably more Caucasian – no doubt, a quadroon like so many of the mixed blood women of the French colonies whether here in New Orleans or des Antilles, whose sway over their white masters had almost become legendary by the end of the 18th century. Read about his life here.
On his father’ side Peter Ustinov is a member of the old Russian nobility. But on his mother’s side, he is a member of the Ethiopian Royal Family. The origin of this interracial line was the marriage of his great grandfather, a Swiss military engineer, with the daughter of the Emperor Theodore II. Forbidden to leave Ethiopia, as were the most valued of the Europeans who joined the Imperial service, the engineer had been wedded to the princess, apparently not only in compensation, but to insure his loyalty to the Emperor.
The former Ethiopian legation to Canada, who were then working with the Department of MultiCultural Affairs in Quebec related how, on a number of occasions, they had requested Ustinov to represent Ethiopia to the media in the same way that he had Russia during the years of the cold war when he appeared to be the only cultural liaison between the Soviet Union and the West. Apparently because of the racial climate at the time, Ustinov had not been able to rise to the occasion. Indeed, in his first two autobiographies, he described his great grandmother as a Portuguese woman at the Ethiopian court. It was not until sometime later that he acknowledged his royal genealogy during a CBC Radio interview.
Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom
Some early critics wrongly suspected that Pushkin attempted to aggrandize the African lineage of this black forebear by playing up the family tradition that he was an Ethiopian princeling. However, Pushkin certainly did not need to embellish his ancestor’s own personal history. For the accomplishments of Ibrahim Petrovitch Gannibal are proof of what any man – despite his colour – could rise to, given the opportunity. Ibrahim was treated as no less than a member of the royal family at court and, in the biographical notes on him written either by his wife or by someone in her family shortly after his death, the following statement is made:
“….he (Peter) wished to make examples of them and put (Russians) to shame by convincing them that out of every people and even from among wild men – such as Negores, whom our civilized nations assign exclusively to the class of slave, there can be formed men who by dint of application can obtain knowledge and learning and thus become helpful to their monarch.” Read more about this Black Russian noble man.
Queen Charlotte, wife of the English King George III (1738-1820), was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. The riddle of Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry was solved as a result of an earlier investigation into the black magi featured in 15th century Flemish paintings. Two art historians had suggested that the black magi must have been portraits of actual contemporary people (since the artist, without seeing them, would not have been aware of the subtleties in colouring and facial bone structure of quadroons or octoroons which these figures invariably represented) Enough evidence was accumulated to propose that the models for the black magi were, in all probability, members of the Portuguese de Sousa family. (Several de Sousas had in fact traveled to the Netherlands when their cousin, the Princess Isabella went there to marry the Grand Duke, Philip the Good of Burgundy in the year 1429.) Read more about England’s black queen.
Following the classical Greek analysis of light and colour, black and white were considered the two primaries since the interplay between light and dark is what was held to produce the spectrum. Furthermore, white, or more accurately, light, was not defined as a colour or ‘tincture’ but as the gold or the silver which, to this day, are still the only options for the term ‘metal’ in the language of heraldry. Black, therefore, was considered the most important of colours, ranking above the red, blue and green standardly referred to as ‘tinctures’.
Thirteenth century texts explaining the imperial insignia go even further. Because of medieval conceptions of the absorption of light by darkness, the writers theorized that within the color black was contained all the light or the white it had displaced.
This is obviously the reason why when the ruby is substituted for red or ‘gules’ and the emerald for green or ‘vert’ according to the traditions of gemnological blazonry, it is nothing other than the diamond that stands for ‘sable’. In all probability, it is also this line of reasoning that contributed to the cult of the Black Madonna. For, having borne the Light of Creation within her very womb, the devotion to the Mother of God as the (coal) black Queen of Heaven is a superb example of how this law of physics was at one time interpreted.