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

(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.

Depicted approximately life-size, a nearly naked young black man stands before a curving dirt path that descends toward a broad Brazilian landscape. The true focus of the image, however, concerns another sort of topography, specifically the bold pattern of light and dark areas covering the youth's skin, including a white forelock across his scalp and forehead. This condition is known as piebald skin trait and results from the suppression of melanocytes, the skin's pigment-producing cells.

Advertisement

This portrait was painted by Joaquim Manuel Rocha, a professor of life drawing at the Royal Academy of Design in Lisbon. It is signed and dated 1786, with the further indication that it was painted from life. Besides this image in Madrid, there are two nearly identical examples in museums in Paris and Lisbon. As will be seen, the painting was made in the interest of science, to record a particular physical condition as faithfully as possible.

Yet there is a good bit more to this young man's story. He appears again two years later in a large, quasi-allegorical painting by José Conrado Rosa, another artist at the Lisbon court. This unique work records the wedding of two black dwarfs kept as favorites by the Portuguese court. The young man is seen in the right foreground, once again unclothed, ceremonially hitched to the couple's coach.

Except for him, all are dwarfs, and except for a Native American from Brazil, all are black. From the text around the youth's waist, a fuller sense of his identity emerges. His name is Siriaco (usually spelled "Ciriaco" in the modern literature), he is 12 years old and he is from the town of Catinguba in northeastern Brazil. He was sent to Lisbon as a present of the local governor to Don José, the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne.

Advertisement

From the other inscriptions it becomes clear that all individuals in the painting have the same origin. They have been sent by the administrators of the Portuguese overseas colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Brazil as presents to various members of the royal court at Lisbon. They seem to have been selected as prodigies of nature, transferred to the motherland as a kind of tribute. Attired in sumptuous European clothing, they represent the Portuguese colonial domains in miniature, to be doted upon as fantastic symbols of national prestige.

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.

Advertisement

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.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.