By Paul Kaplan
Paper given at the DuBois Institute Colloquium (2008)
Introduction: It might seem a little odd to begin a talk about Italian images of black Africans in the early 1600s with the illustration of the coat of arms of a famous contemporary German. On the screen right now is the official heraldic device of Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church’s dominant emblem, the cross, is visible but somewhat dwarfed by the Papal tiara and crossed keys of St. Peter – no surprises here. But why does the bust of a crowned black African wearing an earring also loom large in the modern Papal coat of arms? The historical answer is that Ratzinger had served as bishop of Freising in Bavaria, an administrative entity which for almost 700 years has used the bust of a black king as its heraldic emblem. But the practical answer is that the modern Catholic Church sees black Africa and people of African descent as tremendously important, both as a rapidly growing constituency within the Church and also in terms of their potential for further evangelization. Ours is not the first era in which the Church took this view, and my presentation will explore the substantial visual record of a much earlier Papal focus on black Africa.
While the political and economic power of Italian states was declining in the Seventeenth Century, Italy’s cultural authority remained influential, especially in the visual arts and, of course, religion, even though Europe had been split into faith-based fragments by the Protestant Reformation after 1517. By around 1600 the Catholic Church had completed wide-ranging reforms, and the popes of this era had ambitious expansionist agendas which sought to take evangelical advantage of the imperial and colonial successes of the Catholic powers, led by Habsburg Spain. The leaders of the papal church did not neglect the visual arts in the pursuit of these goals, and from the 1590s to at least the 1620s Rome is undoubtedly the most interesting Italian city with regard to depictions of black Africans.