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Frederick II, Afro-Europeans, and the Depiction of Black Africans in Pre- and Early Modern European Art

Paul H. D. Kaplan

The construction of a distinctive black African identity in European culture goes back at least to the thirteenth century. Wall-paintings from the 1230s in the tower of the monastery of San Zeno Maggiore in Verona, once scarcely legible but cleaned and more accessible since the early 1990s, provide a new and broader perspective on the presence and meaning of black African characters in Hohenstaufen iconography, and on the early development of many of the most significant roles assigned to dark-skinned figures in later European art. The principal subject in this cycle is an image of Emperor Frederick II receiving the homage of subject peoples – twenty-nine men in nine or ten groups, of whom four are black Africans. The appearance of such Africans in conjunction with the Hohenstaufen was not new, as Frederick’s father Henry VI had been represented with black retainers.

Frederick had black African retainers as well, some of whom were drawn from his transplanted colony of Sicilian Muslims at Lucera in Apulia, and some of these Afro-Europeans are represented in South Italian and Sienese art. (A sculpted head from Lucera may even be a portrait of Frederick’s powerful black chamberlain, Johannes Maurus.)

San Zeno in Verona may have been an especially appropriate venue for the depiction of Africans, since its patron saint was regarded as of African origin. But of even greater interest are the manifold links between this image of imperial homage and a range of earlier and later sacred subjects – the Pentecost, the Division of Nations at Babel, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and above all the Adoration of the Magi – in which black Africans came to be represented. The San Zeno painting must have exerted a crucial influence on the development of the black African Magus, eventually the most important dark-skinned character in Christian art, whose presence remains quite vivid even in contemporary European culture.

I have been working on the image of black Africans in European art (from the Middle Ages through the 1700s) for most of my scholarly career. The study described here represents an extension and revision of ideas I first proposed in a book and article from the mid-1980s. I see the topic I propose here as leading to broader discussions about the relationship between actual black Europeans and their representation in European culture, both in the past and in the present. I’d guess my material would best fit into workshop topic 1, ‘Representing Black European History.’ One issue I’d like to see discussed is the possible uses of the many pre-1900 images of black Africans in helping to build historical consciousness about the black European presence among all contemporary Europeans as well as among visiting Americans and Africans.

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