A Brief Look at People of Colour before the 20th Century: Part 2

Horae ad usum Parisiensem, dites Heures de Charles d'Angoulême | Gallica 87v

Image from the Hours of Charles d’Angoulême; courtesy of Gallica.bnf.fr

I am not an expert in Medieval nor Reinassance history, but I do have an appreciation for those who are experts in those fields (and i am being very broad in using tose terms, for which I am quite aware of). But I do also have a penchant for Art and this period in human history was rich in Art. Above is an image cropped from Plate 87 (I believe, my French is a tad rusty at the moment) from the Hours of Charles d’Angoulême, which was complied (that is, drawn and written) around 1475 to 1500 CE in France. The full image depicts Christ and possibly other religious figures, but the focus on this is the the knight (or solider) being shown here. There is a fallacy to assume that artists at this time didn’t know what people of colour looked like. And most art history courses (and I have taken at last 1 or 2 in my day) tend to focus on religious imagery and rarely show anyone who isn’t white. It’s this issue which has led to the belief that there weren’t any non whites in Europe until after the 20th Century. But look at the care, the attention to minute detail that has been rendered here (rendered being a very posh term for drawn and/or illustrated). This man is wearing hose and you can see the folds of his top/surcoat. His hair is curly/kinky with a lovely gold scarf. His skin is darker than the hose and he’s wearing a large gold hoop earring with a ruby in it (yes, it’s hard to see in this picture, but if you go to https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52502694t/f184.item.zoom, you can zoom in on the image and really appreciate all the detail in this one plate). This soldier is also not depicted as ugly, which I think is very important. He’s humble, in awe of Christ (not shown in this image). The artist clearly had seen a person of colour before and did, in my opinion, a decent job drawing them. That’s not to say that every piece of illustration from this period is drawn this well. Because it’s not, BUT the important take about this is clearly to illustrate that there were non whites living in France at this time. They may have been servants or slaves, this is true, BUT they did exist.

The Queen of Sheba, Fresco in a Church in the Lalibela region of Ethiopia (dating from 1100-1200s CE); courtesy of the National Geographic.

The Queen of Sheba is a figure from the OT and most biblical scholars do agree she came from an African country. In Africa, she is from Ethiopia, which is the only Christian country in Africa. She has a long history and presence in that country. However, what I like about this fresco is that they show her being more of a mixed-race person rather than just being dark skinned. Other images from this period, or later, tend to make her look darker but this one has a more Middle Easter feel to it, which seems to fit with who she may have been historically. Again, it’s another figure who isn’t white, but the difference is this time the image hails from a predominately non-white region so I find it interesting to see the Middle Eastern influences. I mainly included it because it’s different from the other images I will be showing and discussing.

Lorenzo Lotto c. 1532 Saint Lucy Altarpiece (detail)

Detail from an Altarpiece depicting St Lucy by Lorenzo Lotto (dates from 1532 CE); Wikipedia Commons Image.

This image from an altarpiece done by Italian Reinassance painter Lorenzo Lotto is an incredible piece (do Google it) which only has one person of colour in it-a servant girl looking after a child. Now, contrast this with the image from the Hours piece and you will notice that she is not as finely dressed, clearly indicating her status as a servant (and she is the only servant in the piece besides being the only other female). Yet she wearing earrings and a veil, meaning she has some status amongst the servants (perhaps). Now, the reason I chose this image was to show the beauty in rendering this female figure, but the care the artist took into detailing her hair and how it contrasts with the child’s hair and that of Saint Lucy. There is a gentle beauty in this figure, which again shows the artist clearly has seen non whites in his area. I am again trying to show that, let’s say the character of the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet could easily have been a woman such as this, yet she is always portrayed by an elderly white dame (and there’s nothing wrong with this), but a case can be made to have the Nurse be non white and back it up with historical evidence. I chose Romeo & Juliet as an example because firstly, I love Shakespeare (the downfall of being both an English & Theatre major I suppose), but I once had a teacher inform me that my looks would always regulate me to the roles of Nurse, except he didn’t believe anyone would cast a non white woman in that role (he was a grade A jerk).

“Portrait of a Moorish Woman” from the School of Paolo Veronese. Made in Italy, ca. 1550.

Portrait of a Moorish Woman attributed to the School of Paolo Veronese, Italy (dates from around 1550); Wikipedia Commons Image.

This is another portrait, done not that far apart from the previous image, but I love it because it’s not associated with religion (which the previous three were) and it’s attributed to a certain style of an artist (so Veronese could have painted this, or started this, and it was finished by one of his apprentices). She is stunning and being referred to as a Moor means she is of Italian and African decent. The Moors, in case anyone doesn’t know, did occupy a large part of Italy at one point (think of the crusades everyone). It’s a very beautiful and powerful portrait. She’s dressed more like someone from Ancient Rome than Italian Renaissance. She’s got large pearl earrings, a pearl necklace and a jeweled turban on her head. Her skin is richly glowing. This could be a young Cleopatra meeting Caesar for the first time. Or the Queen of Sheba. The point I am trying to make is while some of these models may have been servants or slaves, there is also the reality that there were also free people of colour, occupying the same space.

Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Penne and Duke of Florence, who was commonly called "il moro," Italian for "The Moor". In his day, he was officially recognized as the son of the powerful Lorenzo II de Medici (1510-1537) and an unknown African woman. Alessandro was the last Medici to rule Florence, having assumed the throne at the young age of 19.

Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Penne and Florence (dates from 1530s); Wikipedia Common Image.

Alessandro de Medici was the last Medici to rule Florence (he was assainated by his cousin, Lorenzino in 1537). He was nicknamed “il moro” (the moor) for his complexion. His father was Lorezno de Medici, one of the most powerful Medicis and an unknown African (or Moorish) woman. He attained his Dukedoms at the tender age of 19, started construction on massive forts in these areas, then was murdered by a cousin. He ruled for 7 years and was a free person of colour in Italy. Not only free, but a powerful person was well. This is where history has failed us. Most history books that I have read on the Medicis don’t mention why he was called the Moor, but only he was assassinated after ruling a short period of time. Granted, these books were written prior to the 1970s, but remember that popular show on the Medicis? You can find it on Netflix now. Knowing NOW that the de Medicis had illegitimate children with a variety of skin colours, and that there were people of colour in Italy at that time, the show is fairly whitewashed. Which is a pity because the Medicis are a fascinating family. The last Medici to rule Florence deserves his own biopic at this point in time. I’d love a Ken Burns special on the family at this point in time. I highlight this particular figure because most people, if they do acknowledge that there were people of colour in Europe at this time, don’t want to believe or tend to think there was no way any of them were in positions of power. This is inaccurate as it is saddening. Skin colour should not determine one’s ability to rule and so far, we haven’t been shown historically accurate depictions of our past in film, television, and even in books (especially fiction).

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Clipart Image

Part of the reason I started this brief series on people of colour existing in Europe proir to the 20th Century was partly my exasperation at hearing complete nonsensical bullshit reasons why a non white person shouldn’t be cast in the upcoming Dracula, or Dr. Who (people made such a fuss over Bill Potts being a woman of colour and a lesbian). People get upset if you show a person of colour existing in the 19th Century and who wasn’t a slave or a former slave (in the US) and how they don’t believe these people were existing outside of the US and Africa (and Asia). Another is that I have routinely gotten rejection letters from literary agents (up to 35 currently) stating that someone with my name (meaning, not white) has no RIGHT to be writing as well as I do. I’m not kidding. I was asked, in all seriousness, who my translator was because my English was just “too good to be true.” I’ve also gotten rejection letters simply because they inform me that no one will want to buy an Austen type novel from someone with a non-English name. Forgive me, but I didn’t realize that Jane Austen and the Regency were supposed to have been marked WHITES ONLY when it came to writing and appreciating. Austen herself, in all her letters and novels, never mentioned once that her works were to be the domain of only White People. Yes, it’s offensive and it’s wrong. It’s also extremely frustrating as a writer to be told my ethnicity makes me unpublishable. Now, somewhere out there is an agent who will look past my name and actually take the time to read my novel. So far, I haven’t found this person. And in case you think this meant people of colour ONLY existed in Italy, well…

Gerrit Dou Portrait of a Man Netherlands (1635) Oil on Wood, 22.5 x 18 cm. KØBENHAVN, Statens Museum for Kunst. The Image of the Black ...

Portrait of a Man (region, the Netherlands) by Gerrit Dou, from 163 CE. Courtesy of the Statens Museum

Oil on canvas from the school of Francois de Troy in Toulouse, France- Portrait of A “Mulatto” Aristocrat in Armor probably painted between 1680-1730

Unknown Aristocrat (yes, a mixed race one) from the school of Francois de Troy (located in Toulouse, France) from 1680-1730 CE; Wikipedia Commons Image.

ca. 1651 Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache by Sir Peter Lely (Ham House - London UK)

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1650; courtesy of Ham House – London UK. Notice the servant is a man of colour and this was painted in ENGLAND.

Portrait Of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy With Her Indian Page

Portrait Of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy With Her Indian Page Boy by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1673; courtesy of Artfund.org & Wikipedia Commons Image. In case you thought there weren’t any people with my ethnicity floating around…

Portrait of a Gentleman with a Young Servant, possibly Sir George Thomas Bt (c.1695-1774), by Charles Philips Portrait of a Gentleman (possibly Sir George Thomas) with a Young Servant (clearly an Indian) by Charles Philips and possibly from the 1740s-1760s (Sir Thomas lived from 1695-1774); Wikipedia Commons Image.

So yes, when I mean people of colour, I don’t just mean people of African decent. While it’s easier to find those of African decent in art images prior to the 1800s, this doesn’t mean other people (from India, Native Americans, etc) weren’t around as well. Pocahontas famously came to England in the 1616 and died in March 1617 (contracted an illness). So this assumption that if there were people of colour, this means only those were could have been slaves is also a false narrative.

Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe 1616.jpg

Pocahontas was on exhibition when she came in England in 1616. This engraving is the only known portrait of her. Engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616. She was 21 when this was done.

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