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On Being Present - vol. II

  • On Being Present - vol. II

    Recovering Blackness in the Uffizi Galleries

    On Being Present - vol. II
  • 1/22

    The archive has been a central place for me. I consider the space as an active space between research and advocacy…

    Dr. Deborah Willis
    The Art of Black Visual Archives-Who Has Them? Where Are They?, The History Makers


    The museum collection often plays the role of the archive, preserving and narrating that which was recorded, collected and cared for in the past. These institutions are tasked with much more than the restoration, safeguarding and maintenance of the objects they contain and the histories that are embedded within them; they also hold the role of mediating between these traces of history and an audience, which is in constant flux. The decision-making that guided the early steps of many museum spaces, often on the heels of plundering in campaigns of expansion or funded by such actions, are not necessarily what they narrate. Like the writing of history, the storytelling that we are invited to engage in within museums is one that can seem consciously constructed for us with a specific understanding of the protagonists in the works and their allusion to those individuals that commissioned or collected them in the first place. Yet we are left with a range of traces that surround these ideas whether as supporting figures in a story or as a central character, and these fragments that we have are typically as telling about the makers of the work as they are of those who are portrayed. The function of a figure in a painting often relates to the function of the painting itself, the context into which it was to be inserted and the audience that it intended to speak to. Yet we have a consciousness of the past that the past could not have of itself and with this consciousness comes a great responsibility of attending not only to its pastness but to its contemporary values and meanings and continuities. 

    The images and writing connected to this second edition of On Being Present, the fruit of a two year collaboration with the Gallerie degli Uffizi, are anchored within the very history for which the city of Florence is most known, yet the figures that they address are considered marginal to this history when they are considered at all. When we reflect upon the space of the museum as a site for research and advocacy we understand the urgency in shedding light on a range of presences, which have always been in plain sight but have struggled amid the evacuating of art historical canons and the academic framing of speculation. They have struggled indeed to reach beyond the scholarly circles and conferences that have done incredible work in elaborating a critical framework for an appreciation of what has been overlooked, remarkable at provoking questions that long to be answered and crucial at challenging the many assumptions born from contemporary shortsightedness. This second volume is intended as an invitation to all to join this inner circle that we all need to be a part of if we have any intention of speaking honestly of the past, understanding each of our roles in adding voices to the works of art that surround us and appreciating the extreme rarity with which any individual was and is recorded in artworks. This appreciation allows us to embrace the tremendous opportunity and responsibility that each one of us has in pushing all institutions around us to engage in their role as mediators, telling us and we them as complete of a story as possible. 

    Justin Randolph Thompson

  • 2/22
    Bartolomeo Passerotti

    Homer’s Riddle

    Ante 1584
    The Uffizi
    inv. 1890 n. 10784

    Bartolomeo Passerotti’s recently acquired Homer’s Riddle (also known as Homer and the Fishermen), completed before 1584, is a large, enigmatic painting by an eccentric but nevertheless influential artist from Bologna. It illustrates an apocryphal story quoted in the painting itself about the death of the Greek bard, found in a widely available ancient text once (but no longer) attributed to the Greek biographer Plutarch. According to this fanciful tale, the blind Homer was so shaken by his inability to solve a riddle put to him by a group of fishermen – they were complaining of lice,but he thought they were speaking of fish – that he fell into a terminal state of depression. No other artist of the period took up this story, but Passerotti had a taste for comic twists on classical subjects, something that the work’s patron, the Florentine Giovan Battista Deti, may have shared. A contemporary source from the 1580s tells us that Passerotti painted Homer with his own features (at the left), and the mostly naked fishermen dominate the center of the composition, but the largest single figure in the picture - and the most expensively dressed –is a dark-skinned woman at the right, who holds her child in her arms. The shape of her lips and nose correspond to the norms of Black African identity in Renaissance art.

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    Bartolomeo Passerotti

    Homer’s Riddle

    In addition to two compositional drawings for the painting (in which the Black woman appears to even finer effect), Passerotti made several studies of heads that are probably related to this character.

    He also represented Black figures in others of his paintings, including a rather conventional Black King for an Adoration of the Magi, and a Black man and woman who are among the grotesque, lower-class set of revelers with classical overtones in a work known as The Merry Company. Like the woman in that sordid painting, Passerotti’s mother in the Homer wears a pearl earring, as do many other images of Blacks in this period. However, in terms of her hair and costume, Passerotti’s figure has more in common with Early Modern European depictions of “gypsies.” This term describes what are now usually called the Roma as well as other groups, migrants from North India but thought in Passerotti’s day to have Egyptian origins; they were also visually associated with the wearing of earrings. Most importantly and persuasively, in the same source from the 1580s, the statuesque Black woman is described as a gypsy, indicating that contemporaries perceived her as such, and indeed in the later Renaissance and Baroque eras depictions of them were often marked by dark skin, and in some cases also by African facial features. Both groups were very much classified as outsiders in Italian society of this period. (The complexion of gypsies is never the less quite variable in European artworks, as for example in Giorgione’s Tempesta, in which the white woman suckling a child was also firmly identified as gypsy in an early textual commentary). The woman in Passerotti’s Homer does not have the tightly curled hair (seen in fact on the baby she holds) usually associated with sub-Saharan Africans, but straighter, longer hair. However, it is her costume that is most indicative of her alleged ethnicity: she wears a cloak with a clasp at the shoulder, and a distinctive hat. The interpolation of the Black gypsy into this scene fromthe life of Homer is the most intriguing aspect of the painting. Why is she there? Possible reasons include the shared experience of migration or wandering, or the belief that gypsies were adept at solving riddles. Whether witness, bystander or co-puzzle-solver, she shifts the attention of the viewer from the center to the margin.

    Paul Kaplan and Kate Lowe

  • 4/22
    Andrea Mantegna

    Judith and the Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes

    The Uffizi, Department of Prints and Drawings
    Inv. F 404 E

    Throughout his influential career, Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) frequently represented Black African characters. In his Paduan frescoes from the 1450s he depicted a dark-skinned man observing the martyrdom of St. James, and he was among the very first Italians to paint one of the Three Magi as Black, in a picture (also in the Uffizi) made in the 1460s following his move to Mantua to take up the role of court artist for the Gonzaga family.

    Around 1470 he also represented a Black figure (probably female) attending on several young aristocratic women on the ceiling of his famous Camera Picta within the Gonzaga palace. This image, set in the present rather than the sacred past, correlates to the then increasing presence of enslaved (or formerly enslaved) Black men and women as servants to Italian ruling families.

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    Andrea Mantegna

    Judith and the Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes

    This is important for understanding the meaning of one of Mantegna’s most famous drawings, illustrating the story of the Old Testament heroine Judith, decoratively inscribed with Mantegna’s name and the date February, 1491 (1492, modern style). It is not a quick sketch but a highly finished work, of the type Renaissance artists often presented to friends and patrons. We see the youthful but widowed Judith, having volunteered for a dangerous mission on behalf of her fellows Jews, completing her divinely sanctioned assassination of Holofernes, the Assyrian general who threatened her people.The Biblical text relates that she had brought her maidservant on this expedition, though earlier artists had rarely included this figure, and never with the African facial features and hair in Mantegna’s image. Though distinctive skin color is absent here – such ink drawings use light and dark only to indicate shape and shadow – the Black identity of the apparently adolescent maidservant is unmistakable. So, unfortunately, is her subordinate role: she is shorter, less central, and far less fashionable than the elegant Judith. Judith holds the decapitating sword, while the earringed maid servant holds the bag for the severed head. Judith looks down at her trophy, while the maidservant gazes up at the commanding Judith. Yet the two women are neverthelessallies, and their open mouths (unusual in this period) reveal they are speaking to one another about their exploit.

    Why did Mantegna make the maidservant African? The most likely explanation is that the work was a gift to the recently arrived Isabella d’Este, the young bride of the Marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga. Isabella came from the nearby court of Ferrara, where Black court servants were also eagerly sought, and in 1491 Isabella avidly acquired her own, of whom she remarked that “we couldn’t be more pleased with our black girl even if she were blacker.” This coarse phrase reveals that such servants were then conceived of as conspicuous human “accessories” denoting elite privilege, and Mantegna’s idea was surely to flatter Isabella by likening her to Judith. But Mantegna’s invention of the black maidservant caught on, and artists such as Titian and Veronese endorsed this new role for Black women in European art.


    Further Reading

    Jaynie Anderson, Judith (Paris, Le Regard, 1997), 43
    Yael Even, ‘Mantegna's Uffizi Judith: the Masculinization of the Female Hero’, Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 61 (1992), 8-20
    Jean Devisse, in David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol. 2, part 2, new ed. (Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), 213-214
    Paul H. D. Kaplan, “Isabella d’Este and Black African Women”, in T. F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe, eds., Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, 125-154, Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press, 2005


    Paul Kaplan

  • 6/22
    Albrecht Dürer


    The Uffizi, Department of Prints and Drawings
    inv. 1060 E

    This emotionally charged and thought-provoking drawing of the twenty-year old Katherina, almost certainly the slave rather than a servant of João Brandão, the Portuguese factor or commercial representative of the Portuguese king in Antwerp, dated 1521, is the first known individual portrait from life of a named black African woman in the Renaissance. Slavery was endemic in Europe at the time, with ‘white’ and ‘black’ enslaved people coming from a variety of places, but the majority of enslaved people in Portugal were from sub-Saharan Africa – an estimated 10% of Lisbon’s population was black – and Brandão is very likely to have brought Katherina with him when he moved from Lisbon to Antwerp. Her youth makes it highly unlikely that he would already have freed her and that she could have been a servant. The drawing by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, celebrated amongst other things for his skill in portraiture, is quite exceptional in its depiction both of the appearance and the inner state of Katherina. Dürer drew Katherina not in ink or pencil or charcoal but in the more rarefied silverpoint, a technique that required forethought as the paper had to be prepared previously. Dürer was a master of silverpoint which he embraced enthusiastically during his stay in the Netherlands in 1520-1, most famously in a sketchbook, but Katherina’s portrait was drawn on a separate sheet. It is thought that Dürer made this drawing for himself, as an artistic exercise. Also exceptional is the survival of Dürer’s journal of his time in the Netherlands, a cross between a diary of his activities and a record of his expenses, in which he noted his drawing of Brandão’s female ‘moor’ or sub-Saharan African. She was mentioned as one of three people drawn by Dürer on this occasion from Brandão’s circle. The other two were white Portuguese men, but the three were drawn in different media: Katherina counter-intuitively in silverpoint, the most expensive and time-consuming option, Brandão’s secretary in charcoal, and Rodrigo Fernandez d’Almada, a successive factor, in pencil. In the journal she is unnamed but a third exceptional aspect is that Dürer himself then inscribed the drawing with Katherina’s (Portuguese) name, her age and the date, making identification cast-iron.

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    Albrecht Dürer


    As Katherina was part of Brandão’s household, she wears expensive clothes reflecting her master’s status; even though enslaved, her standard of living would have been high. With a brilliant frugality of suggestive strokes, Dürer indicates the watered silk of her high-necked dress, and a single or double-headed eagle with outspread wings on a jewel or – much more likely – coin in the front centre of her coif. Coins with this eagle displayed motif from the early sixteenth century were relatively common as it was the emblem of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. Could Katherina have added a coin like this to her head covering in a similar gesture to Northern European women who wore gold coins on gold chains around their neck in their portraits, to display possession of their wealth? Given Dürer’s constant tipping of servants, noted throughout his journal, is it even possible that Dürer himself had given her this coin at a prior meeting, as the person he socialised with most often in Antwerp was Katherina’s master Brandão, and he must therefore have met her on many occasions. Whatever the reason, if she is wearing a coin, it is an extraordinary statement.Yet the portrait primarily claims the viewer’s attention now because of its depiction of Katherina’s state of mind. A sense of sad introspection is apparent in her face and expression, enhanced by cross-hatching on her temples, under her eyes, down one cheek, and all around her mouth, accentuating these features. Slightly asymmetrical, squinting eyes, recorded elsewhere by Dürer in his portraits, and a full and expressive mouth, project her emotion. She looks down, not out of modesty but seemingly out of melancholy or hopelessness. What Dürer saw and captured in this portrait precisely 500 years ago, in an age when slavery was the norm, can now be understood not only as an attempt at a highly realistic depiction of an individual but as an embodiment of the consequences of treating human beings as objects.

    Kate Lowe

  • 8/22
    Filippino Lippi

    Adoration of the Magi

    The Uffizi
    Inv. 1890 n. 1566

    This painting, like many others in the Uffizi, depicts the Epiphany, the biblical story of the three Magi who came from afar to adore the new-born Christ Child. Starting in the 1400s, and especially in Northern Europe, artists such as Albrecht Durer often depicted one Magus as Black. This reflects a growing appreciation of the Christian emperor of Ethiopia who, Europeans believed, descended from one of the magi. Florentine paintings rarely show a Magus as African, though many include black attendants. The dark-skinned figure on the right of Filippino Lippi’s interpretation probably represents the African pagans who accepted Christ. The altarpiece was first ordered from Leonardo da Vinci, who never completed his panel, now in the Uffizi. Filippino took over the commission, signed and dated it 1496 on the back, then installed the altarpiece in the church of San Donato a Scopeto.

  • 9/22
    Filippino Lippi

    Adoration of the Magi

    Giorgio Vasari, writing in 1568, praised Filippino for the strange attire of the ‘Moors’ and ‘Indians’, terms he often used to indicate dark-skinned people from an imprecisely defined area south of Europe. In Filippino’s work, some of these foreigners wear colorful turbans but only the black man has a gold earring, as well as a pearl dangling from a ribbon. Though early sources about African men do not mention earrings, they often serve to distinguish the ‘other’ in Renaissance paintings, including Durer’s. 

    Filippino was hired by a religious community of canons who followed the rule of St Augustine, and the writings of this church father help us interpret their altarpiece. Behind Mary and Joseph, the man with a dome-shaped cap, wearing a money bag on his belt, refers to Augustine’s condemnation of the Jews; they turned away from divine revelation, just as this man looks away from Christ. The saint repeatedly contrasted Jews with the pagans who adored the Christ child, thus becoming Christians themselves. Augustine specified that the pagans even came from ‘the ends of the earth’, a phrase often used for Ethiopia or Africa. To represent these pious foreigners, Filippino showed one man in a blue turban with his hands joined in prayer. Closer to the viewer is the black man, appearing solemn and respectful.  The Augustinian canons, the intended audience, might have associated him with Augustine’s considerations about metaphorical blackness. In his sermon on Psalm 71, the saint explained that the Catholic Church was universal, ‘growing even unto the very Ethiopians, indeed the remotest and blackest of men’. Filippino’s altarpiece conveys this inclusive understanding of dark-skinned gentiles, unlike some Renaissance works where black figures serve as metaphors for evil. Nevertheless, Filippino does not suggest any equality between foreigners and Europeans. In the right foreground, the painter shows a prominent man, probably a leading Florentine, who shows the way to the people that Vasari called Moors and Indians. Though they will soon become Christians, they remain, quite literally, marginal figures. To the white patrons and observers of Filippino’s altarpiece, black lives mattered—to a point. They mattered insofar as they evinced the global reach of Christianity.

    Jonathan K. Nelson

  • 10/22
    Baldassare Franceschini, called "Il Volterrano"

    Allegory of America

    The Uffizi
    Inv. 1890 n.2688

    Il Volterrano’s elegant painting of a young woman and her black companion is a compelling example of the complex racial dynamics presented by this conventional pair in European portraiture. Baldassarre Franceschini, called Il Volterrano, was a Florentine painter, draftsman and fresco artist who, patronized by the Medici, became one of the most important artists in Baroque Florence. Allegory of America (1650-1670), was commissioned by the Marchese Ferrante Capponi. Personifications of the four continents became quite fashionable in the visual culture of the seventeenth century. After the “discovery “of the New World in the late fifteenth century, an age of exploration ensued that led to a global consciousness on the part of Europeans. Revelations about parts of the world previously unknown gave rise to a desire on the part of Europeans to define themselves in contradistinction to an increasingly diverse and “exotic” world. Hence notions of America were added to the current understandings of Europe, Africa, and Asia, thus creating a totalizing view of the world as comprised of these four continents. Allegories of continents typically consisted of a combination of the female body and attributes or accompaniments that were assigned to each. These attributes were codified in the sixteenth century and remained fairly consistent through the nineteenth. In the case of America, common symbols are the quiver and bow, feathered attire, and an alligator or an armadillo. The women who represented America were usually pictured naked or with a feathered skirt and hat, and alternatively depicted as white, brown, or black. With no racial fixity, America’s attributes became very important symbols of her identity. Allegory of America is a curious treatment of the theme as it includes only two traditional symbols of America – the quiver and the parrot, an exotic bird associated with both Africa and South America. While her black retainer is perhaps her most striking attribute, he is not typically associated with this Allegory. But he is a ubiquitous presence in Early Modern visual culture.

  • 11/22
    Baldassare Franceschini, called "Il Volterrano"

    Allegory of America

    In the case of Il Volterrano’s white female America, the black youth holding the parrot both racializes and exoticizes the main figure, underscoring the European misconception of America as a barbaric and untamed continent. Yet he is an unusual and unstable attribute because he signifies so many different ideas. The pairing of a white female and a black attendant was a trope that was popular in the seventeenth century and was featured in various themes including biblical, mythological, allegorical, historical, and more. However, we most often find this paring in the self-stylings of the elite classes. In fact, Il Volterrano’s Allegory of America was previously titled Donna Turca con Moretto, or Turkish Lady with Moor. Renderings of ladies with their “Moor” attendants were usually courtly fare that reflected the lived presence of Blacks in various roles in aristocratic households and the desire to represent the sitter as worldly, wealthy, exotic and adored. In fact, it was commonplace and fashionable for black servants to be present in Italian courts. Numerous Black slaves had entered Italy through the Arab slave trade, many having come from North Africa.

    The widespread presence of black servants in Islamic culture was known to Italians in the seventeenth century. Therefore, the “Orient” or the cultures around the Mediterranean were the veil through which early modern Europeans encountered and understood black Africans. Dressed in a sumptuous jacket that suggests an “Oriental” pattern popular in Italian fabric design, this black youth affirmed the eastern-ness of the Turkish Lady. In this one canvas we see how the African figure in early modern painting is unstable and multifaceted, particularly when paired with a white female. Il Volterrano’s painting embodies the slippage that occurs when Blacks who were unnamed and undocumented appear in these rarified images. Allegory of America points both East to the old world, and West to the new world. Yet what is fixed is the impulse for Europeans to employ the image of a black subordinate companion in their efforts to construct their own cultural identities in opposition to the darker races.

    Adrienne L. Childs

  • 12/22
    Artemisia Gentileschi


    1650 c.
    Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
    Inv. Oggetti d’Arte (1911) n.1803

    Bathsheba is getting ready. King David sent a message: he would like to meet her. He saw her from the dark loggia of his palace, across that wall of treetops, and that vision ignited his passion. So she is making herself pretty, helped by her maids. One brings water. Another holds a mirror so that she can fix her hair. A third lifts a string of pearls. This maid is stunned by their luminosity - her eyes wet, her lips parting so to show her teeth, to which pearls were routinely compared in the love songs of the time. The mirror holder takes notice.

    Many scenes of toilette thematize vision as they stage a moment of visual care: the making of a flawless appearance by brushing hair or pinning a jewel, like here. But to see also means to consider and reflect. For Christians, beauty needs to pass a test to be recognized as such. Confessors insisted that a woman could be beautiful only insofar she kept her intentions in check so that she did not adorn herself to arouse lust but to look proper, that is to express her status and please her husband’s eyes. And this moral check explains why Artemisia Gentileschi included the third maid as a black woman bewitched by white pearls. She is seduced by vanity as the other maid has realized. This attentive maid is white, and virtuous. We know it because she turns away from the mirror she holds. She handles it as the tool it ought to be; she’s not falling for its deceptions as her black counterpart does.

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    Artemisia Gentileschi


    It was not unusual to see African maids at the service of white women in 1650 Naples, the year and place where Artemisia and her assistants are likely to have painted this picture. Those maids were paraded in the streets as markers of wealth, and Artemisia often included them in her paintings for the same reason. In 1650, she corresponded with the Sicilian merchant Antonio Ruffo, who traded in enslaved Africans, whom he considered “semi-objects”. (Famously, Artemisia’s idol Caravaggio received two for a canvas he left in Malta). But Artemisia did not just register a fact of life. She included the black maid to turn up the moral warning of Bathsheba’s story.

    In a fable included in the Neapolitan collection The Tale of Tales (first printed in 1634 and much read in 1650), a black maid tries to kill a white fairy with a hairpin while doing her hair. The story paints the maid as gullible—she mistakes the fairy’s reflection in a pond for her own and believes that she can take her place and marry a wealthy prince. It also presents her as slow-witted, inarticulate, and vain. Artemisia drew from this stereotype.

    If you consider a previous version of her Bathsheba painting, today in Ohio, the maid holding the pearls is white. She hands the necklace to Bathsheba under the concerned look of another, kneeling maid but is nowhere bewitched by it. It is only when Artemisia changes the skin color that the moral stance emerges. The composition changes accordingly. The black maid's gesture becomes theatrical; the virtuous maid dramatically turns. Artemisia places her in the middle so as to make the point that the moral dilemma of beautification, performed through a black-and-white pantomime, has now become central.

    Emanuele Lugli

  • 14/22
    Filippo Napoletano

    Persian Hunt

    1620 c.
    The Uffizi
    Inv. 1890 nn. 5035, 5036

    What is in a name?

    The little-known but sizable panels by Filippo Napoletano introduced in two previous exhibitions as Cacciatori Orientali and Cacciatori Persiani, Oriental and Persian Hunters, were originally titled Caccia del Persiano or Persian Hunt [1], a moniker of the activity rather than the figures portrayed. They depict two separate hunting parties in eastward processions, one with a falcon and another with cheetahs, markers of regal distinction in Persianate courts. The scenes were painted at a time of considerable Medici identification with the Persian monarchy, pioneering engagement with Persian literary culture, a penchant for Persian calligraphy [2], as well as a fascination with royal hunts which served the Medici fashion themselves as hereditary monarchs in a city with strong republican traditions [3].

    Napoletano’s patron, Medici Grand Duke Cosimo II, inherited a portfolio of privileged diplomatic relations with his royal contemporary Safavid Shah Abbas of Persia against their common Ottoman enemy. This geopolitical theater inspired much of the cultural and artistic program at the Medici court since the last quarter of the 16th-century. Throughout his reign, Cosimo hosted Persian emissaries while an armored equestrian mannequin of Shah Abbas with Caravaggio’s Medusa shield confronted another oriental warrior surrounded by Moorish knights was staged in the middle of the armory galleries built by Ferdinand I [4].  Cosimo also inherited a rich repertoire of court festivities that cast characters from different continents of the world, regularly featuring black African figures, where the Grand Duke appeared with Persian pomp as Persian knight or king [5]. In the immediate context of the Persian Hunt panels, during the 1616 court festivities featuring the mock battle “War of Love,” Cosimo II appeared as a Persianate King Indomoro atop an allegorical float pulled by two live camels from his extensive menagerie, while two artificial elephants pull the chariot of the African King [6].

  • 15/22
    Filippo Napoletano

    Persian Hunt (inv. 1890 n. 5035)

    Panel 5035 depicts a triumphal return from hunt announced by musicians sounding booghs and drums that are riding dromedaries carrying hunted lions and deer; they follow a princely figure on foot donning a royal ermine fur cape, holding his falcon, engaging a young attendant wearing Safavid inspired headgear and hounds. Royal hunts, portrayed with drumbeats and horns, accompanying dromedaries carrying prey were depicted in Persian art since antiquity, most famously in the Sassanian scenes of Taq Bostan along the silk caravan route between Hamadan and Baghdad traversed by G.B. Vecchietti, Pietro della Valle, and Robert Shirley in the immediate context of Napoletano paintings, and in the illustrated manuscripts brought to Florence by the same.

  • 16/22
    Filippo Napoletano

    Persian Hunt (inv. 1890 n. 5035)

    Two black musicians sitting on velvet saddle throws with embroidered Persian calligraphy, wearing Kofias and pearl earrings, form a group with another black figure, attending on foot, and wearing hoop earrings, and a white and green turban. While black African retainers were associated with music in Cosimo II’s court, the context for these figures alludes to Indian Ocean commercial network comprising the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf.

  • 17/22
    Filippo Napoletano

    Persian Hunt (inv. 1890 n. 5036)

    Panel 5036, a cavalcade for a recreational hunt for hares and gazelles depicts noble riders donning ermine hats with plumes with their trained cheetahs sitting on the rump of the horse, following two Asian elephants attended by an Indian Mahout. A coral-crowned dwarf dressed as king with a scepter in hand, gazes at the viewer. He sits atop an elephant on an embroidered throw featuring imitation Persian calligraphy and tahleel, behind an Asian attendant holding a Persianate rose branch. Ostriches follow to add amusement to the burlesque scene.

  • 18/22
    Filippo Napoletano

    Persian Hunt (inv. 1890 n. 5036)

    In the scene’s center foreground a black African page on foot, wearing white pearl earrings, turns his head to span the gaze of the viewer before and back toward a courtier sitting in front of his trained cheetah, engaged in conversation with a woman. Such portrayal of a black figure in a courtly retinue as well as hunting cheetahs had become a Medici emblem since Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi in the Medici Chapel, where the Medici had first associated themselves with the virtues of ancient Persia [7].  The brilliantly colored costumes of the riders, yellow silk and gold, velvet jackets and feathered headdresses recall the description of the mock performances at the 1616 “War of Love” festivals.  Other elements such as the dwarf, typically naked in Medici art and festivals, here dressed as king, as well as the imitation calligraphy on the elephants, transform the scene into an entertaining burlesque.

    Mahnaz Yousefzadeh



    [1] Guardaroba Medici 373, c. 177 Cat. Dipinto n. 77.  The paintings appear as Cacciatori Orientali in the 2004 exhibition in Sakip Sabanki Museum in Istanbul, and as Cacciatori Persiani in the 2007 Palazzo Pitti exhibition.

    [2] In 1619 Cosimo II received sonnets from G.B. Vecchietti casting the Grand Duke and his Dame in “imitation of the practice of Persian Poets” in Persian princely courts. That same year, in 1619, a new academy in Florence planned to adopt a Persian calligraphy as its emblem. See Yousefzadeh, “Exile and Writing Between Florence and Persianate Worlds,” I Tatti Studies, September 2021.

    [3] Angelica Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence, Brill, 2018. Marco Massetti, “New World and other Exotic Animals in the Italian Renaissance: The Menageries of Lorenzo il Magnifico and his son, Pope Leo X.” (Brill, 2018). Angelica Broom, 2018.

    [4] Yousefzadeh, “Sea of Oman: Ferdinand I, G.B. Vecchietti and the Armour of Shah Abbas of Persia,” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali,  2018.

    [5] For the description of 1578 wedding of Francesco I see Mahnaz Yousefzadeh, “The Burrato of the Bargello” in Toscano and Ampkaedts.,ReSignifacation, 2017. During the traditional Battle on the Bridge for the wedding festivals of Cosimo II in 1608, a figure representing Shah Abbas of Persia announced as “monarch of the Orient and the true heir and successor of Cyrus” presented his soldiers as adept at court as in combat pledged allegiance to the Gran Duke. Descrizione delle feste fatte nelle reali nozze de' Serenissimi principi di Toscana d. Cosimo de' Medici, e Maria Maddalena arciduchessa d'Austria (1608).

    [6] Angelica Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence, Brill, 2018.

    [7] Richard Trexler, Journey of the Magi, Princeton University Press, 1997.

  • 19/22
    Jacopo Ligozzi

    Moor of Barbary

    1580 c.
    The Uffizi, Department of Print and Drawing, Inv. 2966 F

    This “Moor of Barbary” (per the artist’s notation, thus from the Barbary Coast or Maghreb of North Africa), looking with deep concern at a giraffe with a serpent-like neck, is by the endlessly inventive Jacopo Ligozzi of Verona, who arrived in Florence in 1577 to carry out work for Grand Duke Francesco I de Medici. The subtlety and animated play of line and color in Ligozzi’s series of costume studies—all seemingly from the Ottoman Empire, to be encountered in Istanbul—owe their artistic character to the artist’s better-known, sensitively rendered natural history studies in watercolor, and gouache for the grand duke (Uffizi). If a fish can be said to be stunningly beautiful, his deserve the accolade.

    Today, twenty-nine of these costume studies, enlivened with gold detailing, are known. The initial album, partially dispersed and of unknown scope, is thought to have been executed for the Florentine collector Niccolò Gaddi, whom the artist met in 1577. The identified sheets include figures from the court, the town, and the military. Their origins are as diverse: Turk, Hungarian, Arab, Greek, Slav, and African. They are all combined with animals. The latter may be naturally associated with the walk of life depicted, as horses led by stable boys, or whimsical, as the present sheet or a cheetah with a bowman from the Ottoman navy.

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    Jacopo Ligozzi

    Moor of Barbary

    This African military commander is one of three Black figures. The others, a nursemaid and a stable hand, are “black” only in the applied pigment; Ligozzi’s sources for these humble figures give no indication of complexion and the artist’s choice may indicate a desire to insert variety. It has been established that Ligozzi combined elements from printed costume illustrations, principally from those accompanying the 1580 edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s report of his travels in Turkey, in this instance the “Capitano d’Arabi” and Jost Amman’s spirited renderings in his 1577 Trachtenbuch/Habitus, as his dashing, explicitly black “Mauritanus ex Arabia/Mohr aus Arabia”. Two elements are contrary to the models, however.  The moor’s powerful legs are bare. Since leggings are otherwise ubiquitous, this is intentional, especially when close inspection reveals a delicate gold chain wound twice about his neck and also left wrist, drawing attention to his muscular frame.  The handsome face, ringed with strands of tightly curling hair escaping from under his turban, bears an expression of concern, distinct from the other typically bland faces and likely studied from life.  

    Then there is the giraffe. There were none in Florence or indeed in Europe at that time.  Niccolo Gaddi’s guests perusing the album may have been reminded of the famous giraffe that arrived in Florence with its keeper in 1487 as a gift for Lorenzo de Medici from the sultan of Egypt. But Ligozzi’s beast, for which no model is known, is unrestrained while the man studying it is a fighter, not a keeper. Nevertheless, individualized and impressive though he is, Ligozzi’s Moor remains an exotic eyeing another intriguing exotic under the white gaze.  

    Joaneath Spicer



    Williams, Hayden, “Additional Printed Sources for Ligozzi’s Series of Figures of the Ottoman Empire,” Master Drawings, v. 51/2 (2013): 195-220. 

    Conigliello, Lucilla, “Figure in costume orientale,” in Jacopo Ligozzi: pittore universalisimo, ed. by Cecchi, Alessandro, Lucilla Conigiello and Marzia Faietti; exh. cat. Palazzo Pitti (Livorno 2014): 92-93 (critical overview).

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    Justus Suttermans

    Portrait of Francesco di Cosimo de Medici

    1631-32 c.
    Pitti Palace, Imperial and Royal Apartments
    inv. Poggio a Caiano 137

    At the lower left of Justus Sustermans portrait of Francesco di Cosimo de Medici in 1631-32, holding a helmet, is a Black male. He is wearing a red and green striped blouse and is looking upwards attentively to the right. He seems to be observing something outside the frame, giving his presence a sense of casualness – of someone who just happens to be there. Considering this work is a full-length over life size, he looks like a young adult. The contrast between him and the central sitter depicted is strongly stressing hierarchy and the anonymous Black sitter seems merely to be added by the painter Justus Sustermans as an attribution to Francesco di Cosimo II de Medici’s (1614-1634) armor attire - portraying Di Cosimo as part of the imperial army. Early inventory also suggests that having a Black male (in Italian called a moro) hold a helmet (a moraine) was intended as comical pun.         

    Ever since antiquity painters have known that a portrait primarily reproduces the external part of a person. Therefore, to portray one’s personality or social standing, props were added. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Black page became a widespread “prop” in European art. In many cases, sitters did not own nor employ Black servants, but their depiction in portraits became a way for white Europeans to stress wealth, nobility and courtly life.                          

    The first Black servant was painted in Italy on Titian’s portrait of Laura Dianti, circa 1520–25, and for the first half of the seventeenth century artists in Italy produced several state portraits with Black pages. In those early paintings we see Black servants painted with individualized characteristics, elaborately clothed to reflect the status of the family and placed in the composition as “part of the family”. Those first Africans depicted in Italian portraits can be traced back to inventories or family archives. But something changed around 1623 when Anthony van Dyck painted Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo (1623) and added an African figure in the portrait. The page is active, pushed aside in the composition and is standing behind Elena holding a red umbrella above her head.

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    Justus Suttermans

    Portrait of Francesco di Cosimo de Medici

    We cannot be sure if Sustermans, who was working in Italy, knew of this new pictorial device – even though his composition perhaps suggests that he has been influenced by Van Dyck’s Cattaneo portrait. In Sustermans the page is also active and placed into the background behind and below the main character. But it also differs with the Italian trend in which the Black page would have a curious awestruck gaze that directs the viewer to the protagonist of the painting. These reasonings have every so often given the idea that the servant in in the portrait of Di Cosimo is only the artist’s invention. However, if one would look closely, the personal characteristics of the face might argue against this. The way his curls coil when you look at his edges are seemingly uneven, as course hair would do. His specific skin tone and the way it catches the light - how it illuminates his forehead, down to his nose and cheek, all the way down to his neck are very specific. Also, Justus Sustermans has a track record of portraying living servants.[1] An attempt at looking in the archives might just place light on this so “casual” portrayed Black sitter we find ourselves confronted with.


    ‘The European scene’, in: D. Bindman en Henry Louis Gates (ed). The Image of The Black in Western Art III part 2, London 2011, pp. 213- 260.
    P. Kaplan, ‘Italy, 1490 –1700’, in: D. Bindman en Henry Louis Gates (ed). The Image of The Black in Western Art III part 1, London 2010, pp. 93-190.
    E.Kolfin et. Al. Black in Rembrandts time (2020).
    Karla Langedijk, The portraits of the Medici: 15th-18th centuries (1983), volume I.
    Karla Langedijk, The portraits of the Medici: 15th-18th centuries (1983), volume II.


    Stephanie Archangel

On Being Present - vol. II

Recovering Blackness in the Uffizi Galleries

The Hypervision is part of the 2021 Black History Month Florence programme

The project has been carried out and curated by Justin Randolph Thompson, in collaboration with the Uffizi Galleries

Scientific coordination at Uffizi Galleries: Chiara Toti, Francesca Sborgi
Advisors: Paul Kaplan, Kate Lowe

Texts by: Justin Randolph Thompson; Paul Kaplan; Kate Lowe; Jonathan K. Nelson; Adrienne Childs; Emanuele Lugli; Mahnaz Yousefzadeh; Joaneath Spicer; Stephanie Archangel 

Web editing: Andrea Biotti, Department of Digital Strategies, Uffizi Galleries
Editing: Patrizia Naldini, Chiara Ulivi, Department of Digital Strategies, Uffizi Galleries
Graphics: Jacopo Mazzoni, Black History Month Florence
Translations: Eurotrad snc.
Photos: Francesco del Vecchio e Roberto Palermo

February 2021

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