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Black Africans and Renaissance culture: interaction and assimilation

Kate Lowe

It is of course absurd to treat black Africans as a homogeneous group in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as it is absurd to talk of Europeans in the Renaissance period. These concepts only have value as oppositional or contrasting terms, which is how they are being used here. Although stereotypes relating to black Africans were undoubtedly already in existence before the Renaissance, it appears to have been detrimental to the European perception of the black African that the first sustained influx of black African slaves (from the 1440s onwards) into Europe took place at this momentous time of white, European self-definition. The European definition of civilisation depended upon an Aristotelian typology for assessing ‘alien’ people, and dividing them into the civilised and the barbarian.

This division permeated the terminology of Renaissance Europe, so that a distinction could be made between a black African slave who was selvaticus (wild or savage, that is someone who came directly from Africa) and casanicus (domesticated or home-born, that is someone who had been born in Europe). But did contact with and knowledge of Europe necessarily bring ‘civilisation’ to black Africans who were living there in the eyes of Europeans? Or was a black skin in itself a barrier to becoming European? This paper will focus on a few examples of black Africans in Renaissance Europe, both free and enslaved, who can be seen to be interacting with or assimilating to Renaissance life and culture, and attempts will be made to assess European comments on them and responses to them. These examples also introduce a sample of the types of material available – descriptions in chronicles and travel accounts, portraits, jest books, donor panels, orphanage and tax records – and highlight some of the difficulties involved in this sort of research. The examples come from Portugal, the Netherlands and Italy and are documentary, textual and visual.

They encompass contradictory fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European written responses to high-ranking Africans at the Lisbon court, a sixteenth-century Netherlandish portrait of a seemingly completely assimilated African gentleman in European dress, jokes by and against a sixteenth-century black Portuguese court jester, the inclusion of a black African donor in a late fifteenth or early sixteenth-century Italian painting of The Coronation of the Virgin, and the cultural and religious assimilation of a black slave couple in Florence in the 1470s. The conclusion must be that in the majority of cases assimilation was not sufficient to guarantee acceptance or inclusion for black Africans in Renaissance Europe, and that even when they learnt and conformed to European and Christian sets of behaviour, they were still regarded and labelled as African.

I am working on a large project on sub-Saharan Africa and sub-Saharan Africans in Europe during the Renaissance, 1440-1650.

Suggestions for questions for the workshop: Representing black European history OR Empirical research: subjects and objects

  1. Why has there been more art historical and literary than historical research on black Africans in Europe in the early modern period? Why has so little historical research been carried out on black Europeans? What are the main problems connected with carrying out this research?

  2. Discuss the role of the Catholic and Protestant churches in the lives of black Africans in Europe in the early modern period.

  3. Why were/are all Western European countries in denial about the black presence in Europe for hundreds of years?

  4. How much difference was there between Western European countries in their treatment of black Africans in the early modern period?

  5. Which areas of black African life were envied by Europeans in the early modern period? What was considered positive?

  6. Were formal or informal mechanisms of exclusion more damaging to black African life in early modern Europe?

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