The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.
The 13th century Middle Dutch Arthurian tale Morien tells the tale of a son of a Knight of the Round Table. As the folklore goes, Aglovale–one of King Arthur’s knights–travels in the Moorish lands while searching for Lancelot. There he falls in love with a Moorish princess who gives birth to a son, Morien. Years later, while searching for the Holy Grail, Arthur’s knights encounter a grown Morien:
On the ninth day there came riding towards them a knight on a goodly steed, and well armed withal. He was all black, even as I tell ye: his head, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth. His shield and his armour were even those of a Moor, and black as a raven….[he] bared his head, which was black as pitch; that was the fashion of his land–Moors are black as burnt brands.
Unlike other depictions of black-a-moors as threatening, Morien’s blackness, though frequently mentioned, is not used as a negative qualifier. In fact, as if making this point to medieval readers, the epic states: “But in all that men would praise in a knight was he fair, after his kind. Though he were black, what was he the worse?”
Even more popular than Morien, was Saint Maurice-the Knight of the Holy Lance. Said to be a member of the Theban Legion in ancient Rome, Maurice attains knighthood when he refuses to massacre a group of Christians. It’s likely the tale of St. Maurice was a fabrication of Theodore, Bishop of Octodurum, sometime around the late 4th century. Maurice appears as a religious figure and is revered as early as 460AD. By the 10th century, he is a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors. Whatever the case of his existence, his depiction in the medieval world was variable. In some artwork he is European; in Coptic Egypt he is brown-skinned; but in other works, he is distinctly a black-a-moor. A black Saint Maurice can be found in the Cathedral of Magdeburg, Germany, next to the grave of the 10th century Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. As late as the 16th century, the German painter Matthias Grünewald in his work the “Meeting of Saint Erasmus of Formiae and Saint Maurice,” depicts the saint as a black-a-moor in medieval European armor.
Independent historian Mario Valdes Y Cocom argues that beyond the often negative imagery of black-a-moors, blackness also came to symbolize ideas of holiness and Christendom. He points for instance to the mythical Christian King Prester John of Ethiopia, very popular among medieval Europeans as heralding an Apocalyptic war with Islam which would return the Holy Lands to Christian rule. By the 16th century images of the “Black Magi” in the artwork of lbrecht Dürer and Hans Memling would become popularized in Christian Europe. Thus black-a-moors could easily shift from what art historian Jean Devisse called a “demonic threat” to the “incarnation of sainthood.” Sometimes, however, the images of black-a-moors could be neutral, whatever their religious affiliation.
In Sicily, where black-a-moor artwork became popular, Frederick II (1197-1250), of the Hohenstaufen dynasty maintained a close relationship with the remaining Moors in the region. Though breaking the local Muslim power base, he also solicited their aid in his struggle with the papacy. After resettling conquered Muslims on the Italian mainland at Lucera, the monarch was said to have recruited an elite guard of 16,000 Moorish troops. Recent genetic testing shows that most of these were NW Africans, Berbers from the Maghreb. Still, it is not unlikely that there were black Africans among them. And, as on the Iberian peninsula, these blacks became popularized in the Italian imagination.
Black-a-moors appear in stories and legends, and become part of the decorative artwork of city-states like Venice, often as the heads of turbaned ebon-skinned figures with smiling faces. In one popular folktale, a lovesick Sicilian girl cuts off the head of her Moorish lover and uses it to display flowers to keep him near. Probably one of the most famous depictions of black-a-moors in the region possibly inspired by this earlier Muslim military presence, would emerge in the 1603 play The Tragedy of Othello by English writer William Shakespeare–where Othello the Moor is called a “black ram” and noted for his “thick lips” and “sooty bottom.”
By the early 16th century, actual (non-imaginary) blacks begin to appear in the historical record as exotic servants of wealthy or royal Europeans. Though their origins were not in the nearby Islamic-European states or armies, they nevertheless became saddled with the term “Moor.” In 1507 at the court of King James IV of Scotland there is mention of a “Helenor in the Court Accounts, possibly Ellen More, who reached Edinburgh by way of the port of Leith and acted a principal role in ‘the tournament of the black knight and the black lady,’ in which the king of Scotland played the part of the black knight.” Ellen More incidentally may also be one in the same with “Black Elen.” John Blanke a Black trumpeter, was a regular musician at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII in the early 1500s. There were at least two other described black-a-moor women of the royal court who held positions of some status as they are said to have held their own maidservants and were gifted with expensive gowns. There are also mentions of black-a-moors as invited guests and paid musicians at court functions. In 1501 one of the King’s Minstrels was Peter the Moryen or Moor who is described as black. This tradition of blacks as entertainers in European courts may have dated back to at least 1194, when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI (1165-1197) was preceded by turbaned black-a-moor trumpeters upon his entrance into Sicily. Over the centuries black servants increasingly become prestige items alongside Arabs, Berbers and other non-Christians, to be displayed as accessories of the well-off. By the late 17th and 18th centuries, as the ensuing trans-Atlantic slave trade turned the face of servitude black, this trend only continued.
Though the vast majority of Africans shipped in the trans-Atlantic slave trade made their way to the plantation-societies of the Caribbean and Latin America (Brazil), a trickle flowed to Europe proper. From Versailles to Vienna, black slaves became a type of popular commodity and symbol of wealth among the aristocracy. Youthful Africans, especially males but also girls, appear often in 17th and 18th century European paintings, dressed in expensive clothing and sometimes golden or silver collars, showing off the wealth of their masters and mistresses–their “exotic” blackness often juxtaposed to the whiteness of their owners.
This emphasis of black skin with bondage easily merged with depictions of black-a-moors in places like Venice. Rather than threatening or associated with divinity, they become increasingly one-dimensional as servile. In decorative sculpture they are depicted holding trays, in the shape of candle holders or as the foundation of stands and tables. The Baroque Venetian sculptor Andrea Brustolon (1662–1732) was one of the most important creators of this black-a-moor servile artwork. For the common classes, black-a-moor furniture and depictions came to serve as a symbol of aspirational wealth; one might not be able to own one’s own black servant, but one could own something fashioned in that likeness–be it a table, candle-holder or statue. Thus even with the demise of slavery, black-a-moor servant imagery had become popularized throughout various parts of Western Europe among both the wealthy and common classes.
This shift to black-a-moors as exotic servants, with the attendant issues of racism, eventually meld with the fantastic. The best example comes from a mythical black-a-moor orphan in the Netherlands by the name of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), a young boy sometimes associated as a helper to the equally mythical Sinterklaas (Santa Claus). Zwarte Piet may serve as a bridge between the earlier medieval depictions of black-a-moors and the racism that would arise alongside African slavery. Arising in the 19th century, at the dawn of scientific racism, Zwarte Piet is not merely an exotic other but at times a subhuman goblin-like creature (or Golliwog) with monstrous features. Today “Black Peter” is still celebrated in the Netherlands and parts of Western Canada near the Christmas holidays, when many Dutch descendants don “black-face” (akin to American minstrelsy) in celebration.
By the 20th century, black-a-moor imagery became a popular form of fashion accessory among many looking to invoke a romantic notion of “Old Europe.” Antique houses, both large and small, have long collected such items and present them for sale as part of vintage-art. One only has to do an online search on “black-a-moor jewelry or art or accessories” to find numerous sites where they can still be purchased. And much of it doesn’t come cheap. On sites like Etsy, a pair of vintage 1940s black-a-moor curtained lamps goes for $2,200 USD. Cartier offers numerous black-a-moor brooches inlaid with diamonds and gems from the 1950s and 1960s starting at around $6,000 and up to $10,000 to 20,000 USD. According to Forbes, in 2007, the Skinner auction house sold a pair of life-size black-a-moor musician automata by the famed French mechanical-artist Jean Roullet for $501,000 USD.
Tracing the history of the black-a-moor within the literature, folklore, legends and culture of Europe doesn’t provide simple answers. From villain to saint to servants to slaves and eventual items of symbolic consumption, their depictions in the medieval and later European imagination has been contradictory and uneven. This places Dolce and Gabbana’s modern-day fashion faux pas at an interesting intersection, where issues of race, power and commoditization have merged over the ensuing centuries. But this moment and controversy does allow for a look into an often forgotten history, in which the European imaginary constructed blackness in interesting ways that continue to linger with us today.
Mario de Valdes Cocom, “Sigillum Secretum: On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry” in The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, PBS (1995). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/ssecret…
Cristian Capelli et al, “Moors and Saracens in Europe: estimating the medieval North African male legacy in southern Europe,” European Journal of Human Genetics (2009) 17, 848–852 http://www.nature.com/ejhg/journal/v17/n6/full/ejhg2008258a.html
Jean Devisse, “From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 2. From the Early Christian Era to the Age of Discovery, Pt. 1, trans. W.G. Ryan (1989).
Thomas F. Earle, Kate J. P. Lowe, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Miranda Kaufmann, “Courts, Blacks at Early Modern European Aristocratic,” in the Encyclopaedia of Blacks in European History and Culture (Greenwood Press, 2008),Vol. I, pp. 163-166.
Paul Edward and James Walvin, “Africans in Britian, 1500-1800,” in African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays, eds. Martin L. Kilson and Robert I. Rotberg (1976)
United Kingdom National Archives- Black Presence: Early Times. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/early_time…
Jessie Laidlay Weston (trans. from 13th century Middle Dutch, 1901), Morien: A Metrical Romance Rendered into English from the Middle Dutch. London: Nutt. http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/morien.html archived online: 2006