The Gypsies and Their Impact on Fifteenth-Century Western European Iconography
Erwin Pokorny (University of Vienna)
Crossing Cultures : Conflict, Migration and Convergence; the proceedings of the 32nd International Congress in the History of Art, Carlton, (2009)
Since Gypsies had no chroniclers of their own, their history is difficult to reconstruct. The origin of the Gypsies was a complete mystery until late in the eighteenth century, when their derivation from India was proved by means of early linguistic comparison. Today, it is generally accepted that they emigrated from India to Persia during the Early Middle Ages, and in the High Middle Ages settled in Byzantine regions. Both cultures left their mark on the Romani language, and most common foreign terms like Zigeuner, Cingaro, Tzigan and so on derive from the Greek atsinganoi (athinganoi), which means ‘untouchables’. This term was used by Byzantine authors in the twelfth century to refer to a Gnostic sect as well as to heathen magicians, bear-trainers and snake-charmers. During the fourteenth century, the Gypsies entered the Balkans. From the early fifteenth century they travelled through the whole of Europe. In France, Gypsies were also called ‘Bohémiens’, because they arrived with letters of protection from the king of Bohemia, or ‘Sarrasins’ because of their Oriental appearance. Since they declared they had come from Little-Egypt, they were called ‘Egyptiens’ by the French, and ‘Egypteners’ or ‘Heydens’ in the Netherlands. The contemporary terms ‘Gypsy’, ‘Gitano’, ‘Gitane’ or some equivalent names in Greece and the Balkans derive from those ‘Egyptians’ as well. However, Little-Egypt was a Venetian administered region in the Peloponnese, where the Gypsies had settled before being pushed onwards by the Turkish wars.
The migration of Gypsies into western Europe in the early fifteenth century coincided with the northern Renaissance in the visual arts. The new interest in depicting nature, the world and its people made the travelling exotics a subject of artistic curiosity. So, in early Netherlandish paintings, the alleged Egyptians were used as models when depicting heathens from the Bible, Egyptians as well as Jews. However, their earliest surviving depiction as Gypsies per se is found in a German drawing from the last quarter of the fifteenth century, now in the National Gallery in Prague.