Celebrating Race in the Renaissance

Image of the Week: What's the meaning behind this 16th-century cameo featuring a black and a white face?

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Cameo, XVI century. Overlapping busts of a black man and a white woman. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Cabinet des Médailles

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Among the panoply of images displayed by the courtly circles of Renaissance Europe, a jewel-like cameo such as this example played its own unique role as a statement of politics and identity. Cameos were worn as a kind of badge of allegiance to an imperial cause, or mounted on elaborate table pieces as signs of rank and privilege. The precise symbolic meaning of these conjoined heads of a black man and a white woman is still being discussed, but the visually elegant, exotic subject and refined craftsmanship marvelously convey the original impact of the piece.

The striking juxtaposition of form and color elicited all kinds of contrasting effects, both formal and thematic. Technically the effect was achieved by carving the image into a hard stone made up of naturally occurring, contrasting dark and light layers, a process revived from antiquity.

The unique qualities of Renaissance cameo art derive from concepts as broad and seemingly disparate as empire, the natural sciences, alchemy and esthetics. Generally the heads are considered to be rulers dressed in classical garb such as a crown or diadem -- or, as here, a pearl earring and the paludamentum, or ceremonial cloak worn by Roman military commanders and emperors.

Perhaps the clearest source for the profile image of the black man himself is the isolated heraldic device of the black head in profile employed in numerous family coats of arms and city-states across Europe from the Middle Ages. In these, the sub-Saharan origin of the figure is emphasized by the presentation in profile of the distinctive, but never truly caricatured, features of the nose and lips.

The motive was taken a major step further during the 16th century through its pairing with other imagery, notably the profiles of white figures aligned beside it. In this case the black head is paired with the classical contours of a white woman.

At this point one may ask what more specific meaning these overlapping profiles might have. Another cameo from this period of a black head on a white background is inscribed with the motto, "Nature is beautiful for its variety," a sentiment that could be understood to apply to both the nature of the stone itself as well as to the human form.

The phrase recalls the fascination of the age with natural history. Not only scholars but also princes inquired intensely into the tremendous range of phenomena found in nature. The study developed into a kind of pseudoscience that attempted to attribute the origins of exotic forms of nature to arcane, often mythological causes.

It has been suggested that the combined black and white heads in Renaissance cameos represent the crucial transformative phases of the alchemical process, which sought to transform base matter into precious metals. In the imperial propaganda of the period, this phenomenon was also related to the resurgence of the Golden Age by a great ruler. In either case, the black and white principles achieve a perfect state of material existence through an immutable process of refinement. Whether or not such heady, freighted meaning applies to this particular cameo may be debatable, but the noble, positive character of the black man cannot be denied.

In the intervening centuries, cameos with black heads remained popular, though they gradually lost their original meaning. In their more modern form, they are known as "blackamoor" cameos. In 1990 an African-American entrepreneur launched her signature piece, the Black Cameo, featuring the profile bust of a black woman. In this way the cycle of co-option of the black image as adornment and symbolic significance has come full circle.