Medici family

Portrait of Maria Salviate de' Medici and Giulia de' Medici by Jacopo da Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), circa 1539. (Walters Art Museum / October 11, 2012)

The view of a 16th-century Lisbon street is such a teeming hodgepodge of races, social classes and religions and has so much life on display — much of it mischievous — that's it hard not to smile.

Slightly to the right of center, an African man wearing the wide pants of a sailor dances with a stranger. He's trying to embrace a middle-aged white woman carrying a jug, who recoils in surprise.

Toward the left, two Jewish policemen — identifiable by their long beards and armbands — support a sheepish-looking black prisoner who appears to be drunk.

At the lower right, a black man on horseback bears the scarlet insignia of the Order of St. James on his cloak and is clearly a nobleman. And from the window of a nearby tower, an elegantly dressed white woman gazes down on the scene, clearly as fascinated by the goings-on as we are.

Within its rough-hewn frame, "Public Square with the King's Fountain," which is thought to have been painted about 1580 by an unknown Flemish artist, has something both joyous and vital to say about the lives of black people in Renaissance Europe — the theme of new exhibit opening today at the Walters Art Museum.

The exhibit, which contains 73 paintings, sculptures, prints and manuscripts by such artists as Peter Paul Rubens, Domenico Tintoretto and Albrecht Durer, was a 10-year undertaking for Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. After the show closes in January, it will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum, which co-sponsored the exhibit.

The show also is an important piece of scholarship, because it is the first time that a major art museum has taken a systematic look at Europe's black inhabitants in the 15th through 17th centuries.

(In 2008, Amsterdam's De Nieuwe Kerk held a show called "Black Is Beautiful" that looked at representations of Africans in Dutch art from the Middle Ages to the present. But that exhibit was less historically focused and lighter in tone than the Walters' show.)

"It's an act of courage for a museum to tackle this topic," museum director Gary Vikan says. "Even though Europe in 1550 is not the United States in 2012, an exhibit like this still brings us right back home to where we are now as a society in terms of tackling issues of race."

Spicer says that she's wanted to do a show like this one since 1990, when she was contacted by a Boston researcher studying a 16th-century painting by Jacopo da Pontormo of two members of the notorious de' Medici family, a woman and her little ward, Giulia.

Was it possible, the researcher wanted to know, that Giulia was of African ancestry?

Spicer was intrigued, because Giulia was the illegitimate daughter of the tyrant Alessandro de' Medici, the Duke of Florence — and himself widely thought to be the son of a Roman Catholic cardinal and a black woman.

The curator concluded that Pontormo's 1539 painting is the first depiction of a girl of African ancestry in European art.

Even more intriguingly, when the painting was acquired by the museum's founder, Henry Walters, in 1902, no child was visible.

Giulia had literally been "blacked out" by an unscrupulous dealer some time between 1814 and 1881. It wasn't until 1937, when the portrait was being readied for cleaning, that an X-ray revealed Giulia's ghostlike image hiding beneath the top coat of paint. Later, the extra layer was removed, and the little girl was restored to her rightful position between her guardian's protective hands.

Within the exhibit, Africans and those of African descent are depicted as Magi, warriors, merchants, royalty, jesters, doctors, saints.

Though the first European slaves were mostly white prisoners from Russia or central Asia (hence the similarity to the word "Slavic") the exhibit doesn't shy away from the casual contempt in which subjugated peoples were treated by their masters.

So for instance, the exhibit contains a selection of oil lamps from the 1500s that were shaped like the heads of African servants. The subjects' mouths are agape, and the wick all-too-aptly takes the place of their tongues.

The exhibit also locates the roots of prejudice based on skin color in a distinction between day and night that Spicer says is present throughout religions.