Blackamoors and Diamonds
Blackamoors appear on brooches only in the best jewellery shops in Venice, proudly featuring as pure Venetian tradition. Amidst gold, shining diamonds and precious stones, the black face of a turbaned moor on a jewel was recently criticised as a sign of racism.
At the same time, while walking around Venice, your attention will be drawn by several blackamoors’ heads popping up as door knockers and handles by elegant Venetian homes.
So, what is the story behind the blackamoors in Venice? Do they mirror renewed expressions of racism or a sign of elegance and luxury Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly and more loved during the Dolce Vita?
Who were the “moors”?
The significance of the word “moor” in Venice was much more blurred than you may think. Addressing people with dark complexion or Greeks that came from the Peloponnese, or the citizens of the Ottoman empire, the word “moor” could refer to Moslems, but not necessarily. Venetians could also talk about “white moors” as many Ottomans were Europeans from Bosnia or Albania and Christians, either orthodox or Roman catholic. And why not, Sephardic Jews, too.
In Venetian art, such as by Gentile Bellini or Vittore Carpaccio or later with Paolo Veronese, blackamoors appear in different roles. Some as servants or slaves, some as gondoliers in elegant livery, as decorative elements or mirroring wealth and high social status in choral scenes depicting Venetian life or sumptuous dinners.
When it comes to battle scenes, instead, blackamoors represented the enemy.
In Carpaccio’s Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, a turbaned black moor riding his horse blows the trumpet and holds the banner with the three crowns of Sultan Mehmet II. The Barbarian Huns killing Saint Ursula equal the brutality of the new Barbarians, i.e., Ottomans and their Islamic faith.
The media served the propaganda of the Venetian ruling class, whose members more and more promoted the idea Venice was founded by refugees escaping violent Barbarians. In other words, Venetians as the true and only heirs of the civilised Roman Empire. Interestingly, archeologists have revealed there were no such refugees that founded the island of Torcello or Venice. But, it just worked beautifully. On one side the Venetians, heirs of civilisation and defenders of Christianity. On the other side the uncivilised Barbarians that in more modern times became African Barbarians and brutal Moslems.
A world splitting in black and white
Disturbing in their overwhelming, powerful invasion of the optical space, four giants attract anyone’s attention when entering the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa, called “dei Frari”. You almost don’t notice Doge Giovanni Pesaro above. The inscription says, he resurrected in 1669 when his funeral monument was completed.
If that very year Venice had not lost the war of Crete against the Ottoman Empire, you would think this tomb could celebrate the Doge as a triumphal hero of Christianity. Instead, it represented his frustrated hopes. And fears. Ironical, don’t you think? After 25 years, 130,000 dead Turks, 100,000 dead Christians and one fifth of the Venetian aristocracy gone.
African Barbarians hold the throne of the Doge.
The sculptor Melchior Barthel seems to me was strongly influenced by the way ancient Romans would represent Barbarians. Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th Century connected Barbarians to darkness. Often imagination added to the description of their habits, transforming the Barbarians into creatures in between humans and beasts. Bizarre and exotic, characterised by powerful muscles, nothing like the harmonious bodies of the Latins. No intellectual strength, but irrational, brutal, whose bodies are strained like in a whirlwind, incapable to control themselves till they are subdued in slavery.
In such a vision, the Barbarian is the invader and frontiers need to be real barriers. Above the Doge and the virtues would like to triumph over the fears and defend institutions, society and space from the Ottoman moors below.
Blackamoors as furniture
Only ten years after the tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro was completed, blackamoors’ representation radically differed. Either nude or in traditional clothings, handsome figures in ebony wood became part of the Venetian furniture starting in the 1680s.
When visiting Ca’ Rezzonico, you can see the extraordinary collection carved by Andrea Brustolon for the Venier family at San Vio in Venice. Around 40 pieces among tables, guéridons, armchairs, African figures as candelabra, or holding China vases. Ethiopian warriors with helmets, weapons and the sacrifical animal lying dead at their feet.
There is no longer a threatening expression in their faces, but some smile or are just immobile. Gentle, young and sometimes effeminate.
And they remind me of the puttos in the Renaissance, holding each other by hand while they dance or play the flute. Just that here there’s a chain in boxwood instead of a flute. Can you dance in chains?
The relation with the Ottoman Empire was changing and you could feel the new trend. The Ottomans were no longer as aggressive and victorious as they had been before. And they became exotic.
Moors became creatures of classical beauty, Narcissus’ mirrors of elegance, athletic beauty and intellectual attraction to diversity. But beyond art, what was the reality like?
Conversions: becoming and un-becoming a Moor
In the acts of the Venetian inquisition, repeated conversions are mentioned several times. While the Church promoted the separation between Moslems and Christians, reality was very different as convenience brought many to change religion, in one sense or the other. Venice established its Catechumenical institute in 1557 to teach Christianity to the ones that would be baptised.
The story of Lazzaro Zen, originally Alì, from Guinea is however different. We learn about him at the Museum of the Contarini Spiral Staircase in Venice. At the age of 20 he was brought to Venice as a slave and sent to the Institute to become Christian under the protection of the patrician Renier Zen. Francesco Guardi portrayed him after the Baptism in 1770, with his elegant dress and a precious pocket watch.
But what could Renier Zen find in this young boy? The answer is in that name, Lazzaro, a name that in the Christian tradition speaks of resurrection. Renier Zen had had nine children, but one, Lazzaro, had died in 1746. So, when taking care of this young moor, Renier renamed him like that lost son, coming back to him.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
Shaul Bassi e Alberto Toso Fei, Shakespeare in Venice, 2007
Paul H D Kaplan, Black Turks: Venetian Artists and the Perception of Ottoman Ethnicity, 2011
Fred Wilson, Speak of me as I am, Biennale in Venice 2003
Bethan Holt (22 December 2017). “Princess Michael of Kent prompts controversy after wearing ‘racist’ ‘blackamoor’ brooch to lunch with Meghan Markle”. The Daily Telegraph. London