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The Last, Great Disruption
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
December 3, 2014

From there to here — from Eritrea to Lampedusa, from Senegalese towns to Italian streets, from immigrant to citizen — the Black Italia series has spanned miles, cultures, and identities. On Wednesday, professor Kate Lowe wound back the clock; the series would now traverse time. As Pap Khouma made abundantly clear the previous week, Italy is a nation whose history is marked by heterogeneity. But despite the country’s diverse historical narrative, its visual narrative remains distinctly homogeneous. What has prevented the representation of such diversity? The iconography of the Renaissance may be the most pervasive in Italian culture, but a clear antagonism lies beneath the surface. The images hide something; they hide a growing “disruption” within Renaissance society: the presence of the African.

“It’s a great opportunity,” professor Lowe excitedly began, “to try to link my work in the fifteenth and sixteenth century with what is happening in Italy in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.” The aim of the night’s discussion was to reveal a truth hidden by visual misrepresentation and historical misinterpretation. Lowe began with the developments of the 15th century. With the incessant slave trade, Italians were quickly becoming introduced to the peoples of sub-saharan Africa. This first wave provides the “context” for future developments.

“The more precise focus is going to be the disruption caused by the arrival of these Africans,” elucidated the professor. This disruption was one of subtle, yet impactful proportions. Preconceived notions and cultural representations of Africans were rapidly—and violently—being challenged by these first physical encounters. “The lives of everybody touched by and caught up in this early African diaspora was disrupted by the reality of African immigration,” the professor explained.

The reality of the “other” proved to be disruptive on many levels: “not only the slaves, but the owners; not only communities, but governments. Public and private are very heavily intertwined here, so everybody and everything is disrupted.” But how does such disruption become observable for the contemporary historian? For Lowe, it is in the discrepancy, the “gap between the visual representations of Africans and the documents.” The documents, transactions, inventories, and notaries themselves create a portrait, a portrait of data—records of names, dates, and racial identities in which the underlying antagonisms of the time become clear.

 

“One of the most unsettling disruptions must have been the disruption of attraction,” postulated the historian. The presence of the African became “anxiety-inducing.” In fact, “sexual desire fueled the purchasing of black slaves,” Lowe explained. Slaves were objects of “rarity,” an exotic commodity to be bought and sold. But for a woman, “being a slave [also] meant being sexually accessible.” The prices slaves were sold for indicate this aesthetic preference for attractive female slaves, a preference that revealed a growing desire for something more than mere labor. The purchases simply failed to make “economic sense,” i.e., the extracted labor from the slave far from equaled the purchasing cost of the slave herself. “There was something more going on here,” Lowe concluded. What the data reveals is the very “anxiety-inducing” disruption of attraction permeating Italian society.

This disruption manifested itself in the culmination of such attraction: children. “In this early wave of immigration, Renaissance Italians were forced for the first time to engage with the issue of different varieties of skin color,” the professor explained. The records of children left to orphanages in the city indicate this very disruptive element—many were listed as “mix-raced.” The pictorial representations of those same orphanages, however, construct an alternative narration, one where the children are “overwhelmingly idealized and white.” The gap between the representation and the reality is quite clear. The data, however, hides nothing.

Perhaps most revealing is the way in which such disruptions were countered. These disruptions needed to be reconciled and integrated into the framework of an idealized society—they needed to be pacified. Fiction provided this necessary pacification. A “miracle story” that circulated throughout late medieval Italy and was reprinted during the Renaissance tells the story of the wife of a knight. The woman had given birth to a black child and was promptly abandoned by her chivalrous companion. In despair, the woman jumped off a bridge, clutching the child and praying to the Virgin Mary as she sunk through the waters. Her prayers were soon answered, and upon surfacing she discovered—to her great relief—that the child had inexplicably turned white. The story reflects the belief of “imaginative conception,” Lowe explained. The fetus could be “impressed by visual and mental images experienced by the wife during conception and pregnancy.” Thus, the race of a child was not necessarily connected to that of the parents. The theory made the birth of a black child possible without the infidelity of the wife. But in attempting to avoid the disruptive, lascivious reality, the narrative functioned as yet another “anxiety-inducing” current, a current whereby the presence of the black male was no longer simply a physical imposition but a metaphysical one—the mere thought of a black male was now capable of creating physical alterations in the baby. “The story serves to illustrate that black children in Renaissance Italy were often problematic,” the professor concluded.

But the documents are not limited to the indication of racial prejudice and marginalization. Some are perhaps emblematic of the slow process of integration, the transition from foreigner to native. Nowhere does this become more revealing than in the language of the documents. “Language is an excellent indicator of shifts of attitude,” the professor propounded. With successive generations of slaves, designations soon emerged to specify identity, to “distinguish between black slaves who had only just arrived in Europe and those who had started the process of acclimating to it.” The term used for the former group was “grezzo”—a term connoting something “crude and unrefined when used in conjunction with materials—a pejorative expression approximating in English to ‘just off the boat’ or ‘straight from the bush.’” Though explicitly racist, the term does highlight a rather progressive tendency. The notion of a “home-grown” or “estate born” slave carries with it the idea of nationality. “So we’re already moving to the adoption of some term here that acknowledges that these [individuals] are in some sense ‘Italian.’”

It is in this dimension—identity—where Italian society faces its greatest disruption. The concept raises an important question, the same question to which Pap Khouma sought answers during his own historical investigation in the previous dialogue: “At which point if ever could black people of African ancestry be considered ‘Italian’? They were born in Italy; they had never been to Africa; Italian was their mother tongue,” explained the professor. Was this enough? The idea of identity was clearly a threat and “slivers of evidence of immense resistance” reveals that it “could indeed be perceived as an ultimate disruption.” But there is also evidence to suggest the opposite: the movement towards “acceptance,” particularly for the later generations of slaves who were being assigned regional identifications. One 1491 inventory lists the qualities of twelve slaves. The inventory contained the “usual descriptors” of gender and skin color, but there was one description that stood out. One of the slaves was described as “Sicilian.” This data point offers a curious insight into the changing nature of identity, a kernel of integration that the professor believed to be quite significant. “Armed with a regional Italian identity,” the professor proposed, “the forced migrant’s journey to belonging in Renaissance Italy appears to be approaching some sort of resolution.”

One may ask why the Italy of today is unable to accommodate an African identity. If one thing was clear from the professor’s dialogue, it was that the disruption caused by such widespread immigration has never been completely overcome. The possibility of an African-Italian identity remains the greatest disruption. Only now, the visual representations have changed. The discrepancy between objective reality and artistic imagery is perhaps narrowing, and the Blackamoor exhibition culminating the Black Italia series seeks to offer a more complex narrative—to not only illuminate the presence and marginalization of the African in Italian history, but to also provide a platform to explore a new form of identity, and allow artists to create work that may one day mollify this last, great disruption.

 
 
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