African slavery and Italian nudes

Pisanello, Luxuria I’ve been reading a lot about renaissance ideas about Africa today, last minute additions to a talk I’m giving at Glasgow Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies on Thursday. This is all for the book I’m writing on ideas about nakedness in renaissance Italy, and the development of the nude as an artistic genre. The second chapter of the book is going to be about race and the nude. Race isn’t something that most Italian Renaissance art historians consider much. Whether you can use the term “race” when talking about the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is problematic – it doesn’t neatly reflect any words used in the period. As Italy wasn’t involved to any great extent in the Atlantic slave trade, the relationship between the Italian renaissance and non European peoples has not been hugely explored (at least not by me… Paul Kaplan and others have done a great deal of work on this – and Joaneath Spicer is curating an upcoming exhibition about Africans in Renaissance art at the Walters Museum in Baltimore).

Now, though, I’m wondering if increased contact with non-Europeans was one of the central factors in the fascination with finding the “perfect” body that underlies the explosion in nude imagery in central Italy in the later fifteenth century. It’s part of the whole discussion about what is the best in humanity and what is not, implicitly justifying social inequality, including enslaving “inferior” types of people. I’ll see what they think of this in Glasgow.

The work I’ve done for this book has let me understand a line I read in the archives a few years ago, when I researching the Nasi family for my PhD . The 1469 tax return of Piero and Lorenzo Nasi reported that they owned “a black slave girl of around 10 years, in poor health, worth little or nothing” (Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Catasto 905, f. 616v). I wasn’t sure what to do with the information about slaves, so didn’t use it in my thesis or book on Florentine patronage – but there’s now some great research done on this issue. It turns out that the Nasi’s slave was one of many African girls in Florentine domestic service in the 1460s – there’s an article about this by Sergio Tognetti in Earle and Lowe’s Black Africans in Renaissance Europe.

Catherine Kovesi-Killaby has tentatively suggested that Pisanello’s Luxuria (pictured at the top of this post) could be an African slave girl – the evidence for this isn’t at all conclusive, but it’s an interesting idea. I’m exploring it in the book.

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