People of Color in European Art History


  1. Math and Science Week!

    "From the last years of the 15th century onward, Venetian publishers printed Muslim treatises on medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics," explains Giandomenico Romanelli, the director of the city’s Correr Museum, an extensive repository of art, ceramics, maps and manuscripts. Elaborately tooled leather bookbindings made in Venice were modeled after those of Istanbul, Tabriz and elsewhere in the Muslim world, he notes. In publishing, trade, diplomatic relations and pilgrimages, "Venice was the hinge between East and West," says Romanelli.

    During the Middle Ages, Venice served as a gateway to the West for not only luxury imported goods, but advances in medicine, science, and technology from the Islamic world, including Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. Many Muslim manuscripts were copied and distributed throughout Western and Northern Europe that had originated at the hand of scribes like the one pictured above.

    People from those regions would have been quite common in Italy and surrounding areas, and this is supported by art historical evidence:

    What is perhaps most remarkable is the Venetian painters’ intimate knowledge of Near Eastern costume. During his visit to Constantinople in 1479–81, Gentile Bellini made portraits of Sultan Mehmet II and figure studies of local men and women from different social groups, including soldiers and scribes; in each instance, he painstakingly described their costumes.

    He and his pupils later drew on his studies in their paintings, which accounts for their strikingly detailed representations of Ottoman turbans and dress. Later, the Bellini protégés Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti became veritable experts in Mamluk dress and its decorum, most likely as a direct result of increased Mamluk-Venetian diplomatic relations at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. 

    East Meets West in Venice, Richard Covington

    Stefano Carboni, Trinita Kennedy, Elizabeth Marwell for Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Susan Spinale, “A Seated Scribe,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 97.

    The Mamluks, James Waterson