Da Vinci’s Patron — as a Black Man?

Image of the Week: This 15th-century piece depicts an Italian duke as the embodiment of his nickname, "The Moor."

Giovanni Pietro Birago, frontispiece from La Sforziada, 1496. Tempera on vellum. Krakow, Biblioteka Narodowa.
Giovanni Pietro Birago, frontispiece from La Sforziada, 1496. Tempera on vellum. Krakow, Biblioteka Narodowa.

(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.

The art of the Italian Renaissance embraced a wondrously varied range of imagery and subjects. One of the most remarkable, as seen here, takes the form of an allegory in which enigmatically playful figures do obeisance to an imposing black ruler. It was painted by Giovanni Pietro Birago, the primary manuscript illuminator at the court of Ludovico Sforza, ruler of the Italian duchy of Milan during the latter part of the 15th century.

Ludovico is best-known today as the employer of Leonardo da Vinci, who painted The Last Supper under his patronage during the very time that this image was produced. He was the son of Francesco Sforza, a powerful mercenary captain who had married the daughter of the last legitimate heir to the Milanese duchy. Soon after his father’s death, Ludovico became de facto ruler of the city. His court quickly gained a reputation as one of the most cultured, fashionable artistic centers of Europe.

This scene appears at the bottom of the frontispiece of the Sforziad, a laudatory history commemorating Francesco’s life. It is dated 1496, a year after the Holy Roman Emperor officially conferred the ducal title upon Ludovico. The symbolic event takes place in an idyllic, verdant setting, apparently an island. The adult participants are depicted as putti — that is, small children derived from the ancient Greco-Roman figure of the cupid. Birago frequently used this motive in his work and employs it here as part of a broader vocabulary of visual conceits intended to raise the tone of the image to the unassailable prestige of mythology.

Elizabeth McGrath and other scholars have identified the principal dramatis personae of the scene. Ludovico is seen here as the literal embodiment of his nickname, Il Moro (The Moor). The duke sits on a monumental base, addressing a gathering of several of his courtiers with wise words of instruction. His character as Il Moro is extended to the figure of his daughter Bianca — the young, blond-haired black woman to his right — who draws near, arm in arm with her husband, Galeazzo da Sanseverino. Another level of paradox is added by her name, which means “white” in Italian.

This copy of the Sforziad was made for presentation to the couple to commemorate their marriage. The dialogic character of the two inscriptions stresses loyalty within the family and the firm control of the reigning duke over the future of his dynasty.

The sobriquet of Il Moro had apparently been bestowed upon Ludovico early in life by his father, and referred to his noticeably swarthy complexion. In keeping with the nature of allegory, the face of the moor does not actually bear the features of Ludovico but instead represents a kind of alter ego. It is both a pun on his nickname and an indelible symbol communicating more of a sense of ideal power, arguably, than his actual features would have conveyed.

The animated image of Il Moro seen here is the inspired, unique projection of a simple heraldic device already in long use by elite families and civic authorities in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Displayed on innumerable flags and coats of arms, this was the silhouetted head of a moor, understood to be a black man, wearing a white headband. The rationale for its use varied from a pun on a family name (such as Morese equals moor) to an evocation of universal authority. Here, this durable image has been given three-dimensional form, coming to life as the living embodiment of an actual head of state.

Though the elite of Europe often quite publicly co-opted aspects of blackness over the next several centuries, it seems that only in the more intimate setting of an illuminated book could a closer identification with this type of otherness be ventured.