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An exquisite drawing of a beautiful woman by Michelangelo. A winsome portrait of a child by Pontormo. A serpentine bronze sculpture of Venus.

These and other images were typical of those produced by artists of the European Renaissance, when painters and sculptors brought a new realism to depictions of the human form through close observation of nature and an expanding world view.

Yet what is most striking -- though not immediately apparent -- about Michelangelo's figure is that the beautiful woman who looks out at us from the drawing is likely of African descent -- as is the child in Pontormo's portrait and the Venus of the sculpture.

Today we often don't recognize these figures as Africans, yet such images were not uncommon in Renaissance art, says Walters Art Museum curator Joaneath Spicer, who is planning a major exhibition for the fall of 2010 about the hidden black presence in Renaissance Europe.

The show brings together about 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and printed books that explore how Africans were portrayed in 15th- and 16th-century art. Last week, Spicer talked about her nearly decade-long project and what she hopes museum-goers will take away from the exhibition: What drew you to this subject?

I've been thinking about this for years. But in terms of a specific artwork, an important point of departure was our portrait by Pontormo, a 16th-century master, of Maria Salviati with a little girl who I think is Giulia de' Medici.

When the painting came to the Walters there was no child in it and the woman had not been correctly identified. Only in the 1940s was the painting X-rayed and then it was recognized that the child had been painted over, probably sometime in the 19th century. Edward King, the director at the time, identified Maria Salviati as the woman, and initially he thought the child was her son, Cosimo de' Medici. But later scholars disputed that because the child is so obviously a little girl with braids and curls. It sounds like a detective story.

Yes, it is. Because Maria Salviati didn't have any girls. She was, however, the guardian of two little girls. We know what one of them looked like; the other was Giulia de' Medici, daughter of Alessandro de' Medici, the assassinated ruler of Florence.

Now here's where the plot thickens. Allessandro was born out of wedlock and after his death he was castigated by critics who claimed his mother had been a servant or slave of Moorish descent in the Medici household.

So this would make our little Giulia the first formal portrait of a girl of African descent in European art. And that's very exciting. So that was the germ of the idea for an exhibition?

After that, I became increasingly aware -- both through my own research and that of others -- that there are an extraordinary number of images of Africans in European art in the 16th century. It just seemed there was so much wonderful material that could be used to open a window on their lives. How can an exhibition do that?

Traditionally, a drawing of an African child by the great 16th-century Venetian painter Paolo Veronese has been valued by curators and art historians for what it says about Veronese as an artist. But maybe we should turn that around, maybe the drawing will tell other stories that will speak to us more directly if we think about it from the point of view of a black boy who spent part of his life as a slave in Venice. How much do we actually know about the lives of such people?

It's hard to tease these things out because we can't always be certain who the subjects were and because we often have less documentation on them than for other subjects of the period. We may have an image and documents, but we can't tie them together. So we have to speculate. We have to construct scenarios. But just because we can't prove everything does not mean we shouldn't try to enlarge the way we view these images. We just need to be honest about what we don't know. Because the subject is an important one, and we owe it to the material and to the people the artworks depict. Was slavery common in 16th-century Europe?

It was a very different time. You had significant numbers of captive black Africans imported into Europe, but you also had white slaves from the traditional sources in Eastern Europe and also Europeans being taken captive in North Africa.

The whole sense of social status was so arbitrary then. Not all Africans were slaves, and not all slaves were Africans. You even had somebody like Cervantes, who was captured and taken to North Africa as a slave before he was finally ransomed. So they didn't make the kind of associations between race and status that were made later, because there were so many permutations.

For example, I recently came across a wonderful drawing in an old book of a black man wearing an extraordinary costume and riding this incredibly decorated horse who participated in a tournament in Austria around 1560. The whole book is about the tournament, the rich costumes, the beauty of the tournament. And then here's this guy. Who was he? Why was he there? We don't really know. But I'm trying to find out.

Most people who were enslaved in Europe at that time could have an expectation of being freed at some point during their lives. It was different from the American plantations, where slaves were bound for life. In Italy, slavery was primarily an urban institution, and the lives of slaves and servants -- and many women, for that matter -- were not all that different.

What kinds of images will be in the show?

Today we take photographs and portraits for granted, but people during the Renaissance didn't. For them, the value of a portrait was to keep someone who was absent in your presence.

This was also a totally different environment from that of the United States in the 19th century, for example. They didn't feel they needed to dehumanize images of black people in order to justify slavery.

The drawings that were done of Africans as studies for the figure of the black Magi in the story of the three kings, for example, are extraordinarily subtle and sympathetic.

They really bring out not only the appearance but something of the mental state of the subjects. You see a certain melancholy in many of these faces. Its quite poignant. It tears your heart a little.

There's this great portrait of a black woman holding a beautiful gold clock; it's a picture that was cut down so we don't see her mistress. But she's clearly being depicted in a subordinate position. And she has this ironic expression on her face, as I read it. Any time you're trying to read psychological states, of course, you have to be careful. But I see it as quite a heroic image.

Renaissance portraits speak directly to us today. I feel like I could meet this woman. Of course, there were lots of white slaves in Europe, too. There were lots of women slaves who were bought for sex. Some of the beautiful courtesan figures in the paintings, to the extent they reflect real people, were actually slaves. But we don't know who they were because we can't pick them out.

What's the relevance for audiences today?

One of the key things is that people respond to other people. ... When this black woman looks out at you and you don't know what her name is and she looks at you with this vibrant, distinct personality that makes you want to look back, this sense of contact across time -- to me this is what's so exciting about portraits. They're so compelling because in looking them in the eye we feel a sense of immediacy, they become real people to us. To me that's what's important, seeing them as people, not just as subjects of art.


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