The Implications of Slave Women’s Sexual Service in Late Medieval Italy
By Sally McKee
Unfreie Arbeit: Ökonomische und Kulturgeschichtliche Perspektiven, eds. M. Erdem Kabadayi and Tobias Reichardt (Georg Olms Verlag, 2007)
Introduction: Observers of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian art have noted the black African youngester serving at table in Veronese’s The Marriage of Cana (1563) and in his Feast in the House of Levi (1573) , the dark-skinned, turbaned figure who peers down from Andrea Mantegna’s ceiling trompe d’oeil fresco in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, the Africans present at the Nativity in his Adoration of the Magi (c.1464), and the black gondolier rowing upright alla veneziana in Vittore Carpaccio’s The Healing of the Madman (c.1496). Situated prominently in the foreground of Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco in the Palazzo Medici, Il viaggio dei Magi (1459), a black African attendant walks alongside of Cosimo ‘Il Vecchio’ de’ Medici on horseback. The men and women of African decent seen in paintings from the fifteenth and sixteenth century serve as indelible reminders to posterity that merchants from Italian city-states traded in slaves abroad and put them to work in households. Indeed, scholars search for continuity and disjuncture between Mediterranean and Atlantic systems of slavery with the black Africans portrayed in Renaissance art acting as talismans of the “peculiar institution” in the period immediately before the Atlantic slave trade began in earnest. More specifically, these depictions eloquently attest to the existence to the presence of black Africans in the Italian peninsula.
Why black Africans draw this attention has less to do with their prominence in slave populations of the time and more to do with concerns of scholars today. The focus on black slaves in the Christian Mediterranean provides a connection between slavery’s more remote past and its more recent, better understood past. But the focus has also had the effect of obscuring features of late medieval slavery worthy of study for what they can tell us about how ancestry was experienced by Italians in the fifteenth century without reference to the model of racialized slavery that prevailed later across the Atlantic. If, for the moment, we put aside what we know about later systems of slavery, we will see that legal status evolved in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy in a way that was the diametrical opposite of racialized slavery in later centuries. This point can best be made by drawing attention to the sexual service performed by slave women.