This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
A beautiful black woman stands in an elegantly twisting pose, her naked body rising in a series of fluidly shifting forms. She is the embodiment of Venus, the ocean-born goddess of physical beauty and earthly love. The highly finished, shining patina of the bronze surface evokes the glistening appearance of the goddess’s dark skin as she emerges from her bath. Her divine origin is revealed not only by the mirror but also by the small towel held in her other hand. Around her head is wrapped a long strip of cloth, a rather domestic-looking attribute not usually found in representations of the goddess.
This remarkable conception of ideal beauty is profoundly marked by the legacy of the classical world. Even so, nowhere in ancient Greek or Roman art—or in the artist’s own period of the late Renaissance, for that matter—had the body of Venus been imagined beyond the ethnic confines of the Mediterranean Sea. The head of the figure is clearly that of a black woman.
Standing not much more than a foot high, this elegant statuette was once attributed to the Northern Italian sculptor Danese Cattaneo. Though its assignment to him is generally rejected now, the true identity of the black Venus remains elusive. Current scholarship favors either Barthélemy Prieur, a French sculptor of innovative tomb monuments, or Johan Gregor van der Schardt, a somewhat lesser-known but similarly accomplished artist born in the Netherlands.
Each artist was thoroughly familiar with the dominant aesthetic of Italian sculpture, especially van der Schardt, who had spent his youth working in the major artistic centers of Northern and Central Italy. This region became the fountainhead of culture for artists of the period, inspired in part by the example of Michelangelo. The elongated proportions, refined surfaces and continual engagement of the eye around the figure constitute the typical artistic vocabulary of the mannerist phase of 16th-century Renaissance art.
The artist who so skillfully wrought the black Venus exemplifies the formally refined, erudite tastes of the ruling elite of Europe during a period when art served as one of the primary expressions of temporal power. Prieur had been granted the position of court sculptor for the French King Henry IV, while van der Schardt held the same post, first for Maximilian II, the Holy Roman emperor reigning at Prague and Vienna, then for the king of Denmark.
The conception of the divine figure of Venus as a black woman simultaneously intrigued and challenged the esthetic sensibility of the Renaissance. The existence today of at least 13 examples of this statuette attests to the popularity of the theme during the 16th and 17th centuries. Presented as the supreme exemplar of the female form, Venus raises a mirror to her face in order to contemplate her own features. Her self-referencing gaze lies somewhere between superficial admiration and a more elevated reflection on created beauty. Her internal absorption in turn invites the viewer to replicate the experience from a more personal perspective.
Such an extremely intimate conflation of form and divine essence was best experienced on a small scale. Though created for those whose public authority took the form of lavish chateaux and grand rituals of state, statuettes such as this one were reserved for the private delectation of rulers and their immediate circle. Prompted by newly developed aesthetics of beauty and a widening awareness of the world, connoisseurs who gathered around this intimately scaled work could ponder its unique coalescence of race, physical form and the cultural derivation of physical attractiveness.
Though the precise meaning of this elegant image of the black goddess remains elusive, her appearance here marks an early phase of the incorporation of the black figure within the loftiest modes of Western cultural expression. At a time when the true nature of the black African world was not well understood, the images of its inhabitants were often incorporated into the more familiar context of European literature and art.
The black Venus brings to mind the dark-complected Andromeda, the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, saved from her fate as a sacrificial victim by the hero Perseus. The concept of the dark-skinned goddess can also be likened to contemporary court drama. A primary example is the Masque of Darkness, produced by Inigo Jones for King James I of England in the early 17th century.
The plot of this grand spectacle—part allegory and part political set piece, and performed by noble ladies of the court in blackface—turned around a complex play on the aesthetic contrast between darkness and lightness. Niger, the god of the River Nile in Egypt, sends his daughters to Britannia, also styled as Albion, literally the “land of whiteness.” Against his wishes, the young women desire to lighten their skin. In an all-too-familiar attempt to fit in, a sophisticated engagement with the ancient theme of conversion from black to white ensues. Beneath its formal trappings, this form of ethnic alchemy, couched in myth and fantasy, may also reflect the uneasiness felt by Europeans when confronted by the African presence in their midst.
In contrast with the whitened skin fervently sought by Niger’s daughters, the black Venus fully accepts the appeal of her dark beauty. Her figure represents an attempt on the allegorical level to incorporate Africanness within the European experience. Once posited, however, the effortless grace of this conception of black beauty enjoyed only a brief reign. From the private delectation of monarchs and the intelligentsia, other, more compromised agendas were quickly imposed on the ideal form of the black Venus.
Her grace and composure inspired a potent new image of the continent of Africa, represented as a metaphor, in elegant female guise, of the global agenda of European expansion. In the ultimate irony, her figure even came to stand for the transatlantic slave trade itself, the maritime origin of Venus twisted as a euphemistic gloss on the real horrors of the practice.
Still, her original acceptance within the rarefied sphere of connoisseurship may not have occurred in vain. Seen as a presence worthy of emulation, the black Venus could also inspire those who staunchly opposed the depredations of slavery and the oppression of Africa’s children.
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.