Why Are Black Men on a Venetian Tomb?

Image of the Week: The Moor slaves would later inspire decorative art that became popular in Europe.

Melchior Barthel (with Baldassare Longhena and Juste Le Court), Tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro, 1665-69, Venice

The use of black supporting figures in Venetian art quickly passed from monumental facades to an ostensibly decorative repurposing as furniture items. Andrea Brustolon, himself a patrician, transferred Barthel’s imposing giants into elegant wooden plant stands, candelabra and other furnishings for the elite salons of the city. The heads no longer grimace but smile energetically, as though eager to please.

“Blackamoor” imagery of this elegant type soon became popular throughout Europe. Like the Aunt Jemima cookie jars and jockey figures so well known in America, they arouse both fascination and indignation while still being produced in considerable numbers today.

The contemporary response to the burdened black figure in Venetian art has gone far beyond standard art historical analysis to establish a meaningful critique of its legacy. In “The Burning,” a short story first published in 1951, the American author Eudora Welty uses the motive of black supporting figures on a Venetian mirror to evoke the end of slavery during the American Civil War.

This conceit was likely inspired by the author’s trip to Europe, which ended with a three-day stay in Venice. The black slave Delilah, who had only been allowed to see it from afar, finds the burned mirror in the parlor fireplace of her mistresses’ ruined Southern plantation house. The mirror is used as a metaphor for the all-seeing surveillance of the slave-owning class, now rendered powerless.

More recently Fred Wilson, an African-American installation artist, has examined the blackamoor image in his contribution to the American pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Employing as his leitmotif the title character’s line from Shakespeare’s play Othello, “Speak of me as I am,” Wilson broadly riffed on the ubiquitous nature of these popular black figures in the public persona of the city. Instead of retaining the standard illumination typically carried by these figures, however, Wilson ups the ante by rigging them with both acetylene torches as well as fire extinguishers.

Whether equipped with the means to consume with fire or to quench it, or themselves exhausted by its ravages, these transfigured Moors, unlike their counterparts on the Pesaro tomb, are no longer constrained to bear the ignominious burden set upon them by their makers. Rather, they attempt to break the mold of the past and explore new paths to self-determination.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center 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.