The Case of Blackness in Renaissance Italy

Detail of the black gondolier, 1494, Miracles of the True Cross, by Vittorio Carpaccio (c. 1465-1525/1526), Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Historian and co-director of the Center for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the Queen Mary College of London, Professor Kate Lowe, headed the discussion centered around the enforced immigration of black Africans to Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries at the LPD event “Disruptive Reality: Black Africans in Renaissance Italy”. By analyzing artistic and documented resources Professor Lowe provided an in depth look at the history of the presence of black Africans in Italy and, more specifically, Venice during this period of rebirth.

Professor Lowe explained that in mid 15th century, slavery had become a widely accepted social institution in Italy and most of Europe and there was a large presence of white slaves and indentured servants before the arrival of black Africans. With the arrival of these black Africans came the disruption of the reality and way of life of both Africans and Venetians. First and foremost, this disruptive reality manifested itself in the lives of the black Africans who were ripped from their way of life and forcibly transported to Italy, Spain, and Portugal. These individuals’ way of life and being became disrupted by the arrival of Europeans and continued to be disrupted as they were separated from their families and sold into slavery.

Secondly Italians had preconceived notions of black Africans which were formed in part by the media of the time; whether it was visually, such as paintings, sculptures and statues, or through literature such as plays or books. The representation, or misrepresentation, of black Africans in Italy became disrupted by the actual arrival of this group of people, causing a collision of expectation and reality for Italians.

Lowe provided valuable insight on the vague and seemingly indiscernible history of black Africans in Renaissance Italy.  She was able to uncover a new reality of diversity in Italian history. An important history that may carry a sense of identity for black Italians today.



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