I adore art and history so I visit The Met at least once a month, sometimes more. Once a week they host an event called “The Observant Eye” that allows a small group of people to engage in deep discussion related to a piece chosen by the museum’s staff. Usually these insightful conversations take place in the European Art galleries and I am the only person of color in attendance.
My presence invokes shock, confusion, discomfort or reassuring smiles from other attendees and occasionally disapproving glances from Black security guards. Presumably, because they may suspect the presence of an “Aunt Mary” (a female version of an “Uncle Tom”) in the mix. Why else would I give a hoot about the European aristocracy and their puffed up portraits?
That’s usually how it goes but last night was different because of a guard named Henry. I have known Henry for at least five years but his post is usually in the Egyptian gallery during the daytime. I was so happy to see him because though he has only an eighth grade education, he is quite a brilliant man.
We discuss the most arcane subjects and occasionally even engage in a friendly debate or two. Henry learned everything he knows from reading museum copy, meticulously researching anything he doesn’t understand or wants to know more about and carefully listening to the conversations of curators that hardly even know he exists. As we chatted about Renaissance art as we strolled passed unblinking eyes, the conversation switched to Alessandro de Medici, the 26 year old, Black Duke of Florence.
Henry knows I read Anthropological publications and wanted to know if I had heard about the plan his family had to exhume his body. I had not.
Briefly, Alessandro was the son of Pope Clement VII and Simonetta da Collavechio, an alleged “African servant girl”. His portrait was basically hidden from the world until relatively recently because he was an embarrassment as the ancestor of some of the most noble and titled families in Europe, including the Hapsburgs (Marie Antoinette was a Hapsburg).
In 2009, the University of Florence was to exhume the body of Alessandro for DNA testing to prove his race once and for all. Though there was no doubt about Alessandro’s identity as a “Moor” to his contemporaries (including his loving relatives), his elite spawn want to believe that it wasn’t true and that someone (probably the cousin that had him assassinated) merely wanted to ruin his reputation forever. I suppose they are still testing.
None of this is shocking to me because I am very much aware of the Black Nobility of Europe (There were WAY more than ole Alessandro) and the politics involved with telling that and so many other stories.
Most people don’t have a clue that entire segments of World History have been edited, so whenever they see a person of African descent in European art they instantly accept their identity as merely some kind of slave, servant or random Negro. Few stop to consider why so many images of very impressively attired/bejeweled Black people (usually before the Fall of the Holy Roman Empire) are simply labeled “Head of a Negro,” “Head of a Moor”, “Servant Girl,” “Portrait of a Slave.”
Could none of the artists where so many of these works are found (Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy etc.) come up with no other titles for their paintings or were they purposely forgotten?
And what about the images of the mulatto, quadroon and octoroon elites back then that were depicted with purely European features for official portraits? How many of those porcelain beauties with those rosy cheeks really looked like Vanessa Williams, Beyonce or Jennifer Hudson instead of Kate Hudson in reality but became that phenotype with a few strokes of a painters brush?
Even in our own time, periodicals are busted now and then for lightning the appearance of prominent Black people, especially if they are featured on the cover (unless they are accused of a crime in which case they may become suddenly darker).
When I was in college there was a White British Art restoration student that exposed the regular placement of European noses on Ancient Egyptian busts to remove the appearance of prognathism (I hear she’s at the Fitzwilliam Museum now) so none of this is new to me by any means but it’s still very sad.
The good news is there is a ton of artwork that has survived, courageous whistleblowers in the industry and everyday people that care about preserving humanity’s heritage as it is. If everyone that discovered a little known historical fact and inquired/requested to learn more about that from the curators of galleries and museums than they would have to address the issue. History has proven that being pro-active, not just getting angry is the only way to liberate minds to inspire change.
Image: Portrait of Alessandro de Medici by Jacopo Pontormo. Portrait of Queen Charlotte of England and Ireland, wife of George III by Allan Ramsay. Charlotte is the grandmother of Queen Victoria.
Tayannah McQuillar is a writer and the Founder of Demimonde Public Relations (www.demimondepr.com) @demimondepr