Portraying Difference in 18th-Century Brazil

An artist pays an ironic tribute to the occurrence of anomalies in human beings.

Joaquim Manuel Rocha, Ciriaco, 1786, oil on canvas, 137 by 83 cm. (Museo Nacional de Etnología, Madrid)

Ciriaco’s arrival in Portugal corresponds with the age of the Enlightenment, when inquiry into the natural world was beginning to take on the qualities of a true investigative discipline. It is significant that all three known copies of his image are owned by scientific institutions, not art museums. The existence of these multiple copies in such venues underscores the fascination that this young man held as a wonder of nature.

Leading scientists such as the anatomists Cuvier, Camper and Lavater, and the natural historian Buffon, advanced reasoned, intricate theories to account for the occurrence of physical differences among human beings. Buffon believed that the splotched patterning characteristic of piebald skin trait could result only from the union between black albinos and normally pigmented blacks. The superficially persuasive logic of this view persisted for generations among scientists. On the other hand, a more popular explanation held that a child would be imprinted with the vision of whatever his or her mother beheld during conception. In the case of piebald children, this was usually a spotted animal of some sort.

Recent advances in genetic research have greatly clarified our understanding of this phenomenon. In technical terms it results from a congenital, autosomal disorder linked to the mutation or elimination during fetal development of the proto-oncogene c-kit on the fourth chromosome. It is found in people of all races and occurs, on average, once in every 14,000 births.

From these considerations, a dual identity for Ciriaco emerges. On the one hand, he was an object of scientific inquiry; on the other, he was a symbol of wealth and political power. Both scientists and courtiers paid their own ironic tribute to him, not so much for his worth as a human being but for what he otherwise represented: a foreign body that could be possessed, prized and manipulated in the service of their own interests.

Fatefully, it would be this same court that fled to Brazil in advance of invading Napoleonic troops 20 years later. Whether or not Ciriaco was able to return to his homeland then is not recorded.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.