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

(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 Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

This week's image features a detail from the left side of an imposing monument to a leader of the Adriatic city-state of Venice. (For a full view of this work and a comprehensive discussion of it by Paul H.D. Kaplan, see The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. III, Part 1, pages 183-87, figure 99.) The tomb of Giovanni Pesaro is located in the historically and artistically important Franciscan monastic church of the Frari. The monument is situated on the south aisle of the nave, flanking the door to the courtyard. The incorporation of this passageway into the tomb's design recalls the central feature of an ancient Roman triumphal arch and its association with conquest, in this case that of victory over death.

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The interior of the vast church serves as a kind of pantheon for some of the great families of the city. The tomb's occupant, Giovanni Pesaro, had reigned as doge, or supreme leader, of the Republic of Venice. The grandiosity of his monument belies the modest nature of his service to the city and its waning empire. He ruled just a year and a half before his untimely death in 1659. During his brief tenure the large island of Crete, the last major possession of Venice in the Mediterranean, had been lost to the Ottoman Empire.

On the lower zone of the tomb, four massive, larger-than-life black figures flank the rounded, central arched doorway. Each bears with bowed head the weight of a ponderous cornice. A tasseled cushion set on their shoulders provides the only relief from the crushing burden. They create a stunning visual effect rendered in contrasting black and white marble, a pattern carried throughout the upper zone of the tomb. Between each pair of figures are bronze skeletons holding the doge's epitaph.

On the level above are more conventionally conceived figures of virtues. They flank the kneeling effigy of the doge, who extends his arms toward heaven. On the base of this vertiginous ensemble is a large inscription declaring that the doge has come back to life, along with the date, 1669.

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Baldassare Longhena, the leading architect of Venice at the time, designed the architectural structure of the tomb. For the sculptural components, two artists were chosen who had worked with Longhena on similar projects. The figures of the black men, robust and powerful, are attributed to Melchior Barthel, a German sculptor long active in Venice. Most of the other figures seem to have been carved by another foreigner, the Flemish sculptor Juste Le Court.

The figures are usually characterized as Moors, a term that at the time could refer to a variety of people living on the periphery of Europe, not just black Africans. Their presence on the monument coincides with the creation of four similar black figures, also larger than life and made of black and white marble, for the terrace of a sumptuous hunting lodge outside Turin. A contemporary description of these figures describes them as schiavi mori, or "Moorish slaves." A direct connection between the two projects seems likely, since at least two of the same contributors were involved in both commissions.

Ideologically, the ponderous giants on the Pesaro tomb may evoke the longed-for defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Symbolically, they represent blackness itself as a source of evil and threat from outside. Within the city, as in other aristocratic societies of Europe during the 17th century, the concern with blackness took on a more tangible expression as Venetian families acquired living versions of these figures, dressed in fine livery and functioning as ostentatious emblems of wealth and prestige.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.