Just as Princess Diana’s initial days in the public eye are remembered for photos snapped by paparazzi who chased her through the streets of London, zoom lenses were also instrumental in unleashing the story that partially overshadowed American actress Meghan Markle’s introduction to life among the British monarchy. Only in this case, the pictures that were the cause of all the fuss were not of the bride-to-be.
“Anger over revelation that Princess Michael of Kent wore a controversial brooch to the Queen’s Christmas dinner”; “Is Prince Michael of Kent a racist?”; “Princess Michael apologizes after ‘racist’ jewelry spotted on Twitter.” These were just some of the international headlines in reaction to Princess Michael of Kent’s choice to wear to an event also attended by Markle, the biracial daughter of a black mother, a piece of jewelry depicting a black man in a golden robe and turban.
Leaving aside the personal story of Princess Michael (whom Brits were quick to recall was the daughter of an SS officer and had made problematic remarks about blacks in the past), the debate about the brooch is not nearly as straightforward as it might seem. The media took to calling the brooch a blackamoor — a general term for (now-controversial) figurines and jewels that were popular in Europe in Renaissance times, usually depicting African or other non-European slaves or servants. But the brooch worn by Princess Michael is of another, more specific type —Moretto Veneziano — that has been made in Venice since the dawn of the modern age until today. It is an object with a long history and multiple aspects to it that aren’t necessarily racist.
A cultural misunderstanding
Seeing the brooch called racist was especially upsetting for Alberto Nardi, owner of the jewelry store that bears his name in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Nearly every goldsmith in the city creates and sells pieces depicting the torso of an African man in elaborate Oriental garb, but Nardi’s pieces are the most famous.
“We made the brooch,” he told Italian media when the scandal erupted. “A whole lot of nonsense has been written, and I wish to defend an object that is rich in history and unique to Venice. Regardless of the princess’s conduct, this is an object that is the total antithesis of racism, the charge made by the Anglo-Saxon media that have tarnished our name. The brooch depicts a Moorish Venetian prince.”
Nardi also likened the figure on the brooch to Shakespeare’s Othello, who was a black officer in the Venetian army.
“I think what happened here was a cultural misunderstanding,” says jewelry historian Anastazja Buttitta. “People from Britain and America are entitled to feel offended, but this came from a different cultural context and these objects need to be placed in the appropriate context. In the English-speaking world there is trauma associated with slavery, colonialism and the treatment of blacks. Italy is certainly no paradise and it, too, has to contend with racism, but the trauma is not as strong there in the same way.
"In Italy when you see a piece of jewelry depicting a black man, you don’t immediately think racism. We can’t use modern-day categorizations about racism when we’re talking about objects that were crafted during the early modern period. We have to put things in context and look at the society and the time in which they were created,” says Buttitta, who studied art history at the University of Florence under Prof. Dora Liscia Bemporad, a pioneer in the history of applied art and Jewelry. She is currently completing her doctoral studies at Ben-Gurion University on Renaissance-era jewelry from Venice. Her adviser is Prof. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby
Buttitta points out that slavery existed in the early modern age in Europe, and particularly in Venice, which, before the Age of Discovery, was the wealthiest city on the continent and drew people from all over the world.
“There were lots of black slaves in Venice,” Buttitta says, noting, however, that a majority of the slaves in the city were not black.
“Their common denominator was that they were not Christians. Slavery was revenge against the non-Christians.”
In Venice, slavery was for a limited amount of time, she explains. “Before the master or mistress died, they would prepare for their slaves to be absorbed in Venetian society.” After the owner’s death, the slaves would become integrated in Venetian society.
“For example, in the late-15th-century artist Vittorio Carpaccio’s ‘Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto,’ a black gondolier appears near the bottom of the painting. Black gondoliers worked together with white gondoliers and they were all in the same guild.”
In many works created in Europe in that period, blacks were represented in degrading ways, often as half-naked slaves or servants in chains, or with farcical exaggerations of their facial features.
“In Venetian decorative art, you frequently see black people depicted as slaves or servants,” says Buttitta. “In an interesting and unusual way, it’s in the Venetian jewelry that a shift can be seen. We start to find pieces with blacks depicted as princes, with the upper half of their bodies resembling reliquary busts (figurines from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in which the relics of saints were buried).
“The blacks in these pieces were essentially being depicted as aristocrats. And over the years, these objects became one of the city’s most important symbols, symbolizing to Venetians their openness to other cultures.”
What led to the change in the way blacks were depicted? Buttitta says most of the pieces currently crafted in Venice depict black men following the model of classical art from the Hellenist and Roman periods.
“Since medieval times, the Republic of Venice sought to emphasize its connection with the Classical world, especially that of Rome, a culture in which the concept of racism did not exist. People were judged solely by their abilities and achievements. We see blacks represented in Roman works as warriors or dignitaries.”
In addition to the Republic of Venice’s desire to emulate ancient Rome, the city was also influenced by southern Germany, to which it was tied through trade routes.
“There the cult of St. Maurice was widespread. He was a black Roman commander who originally came from Egypt and became a martyr. He was depicted in art as a very distinguished black man, and the Venetians were also influenced by this.”
She says that the word “moro” (“Moor”) was never perceived in Italy as having a negative or racist connotation, and that it was used to describe Arabs, North Africans and people from the Middle East. In fact, the term was considered so complimentary that many Venetian families, including that of a doge (Cristoforo Moro, who lived in the late 15th century), adopted the name.
“The moro also became a symbol of three places in Italy that are all interconnected,” she says.
“Venice, which has been represented for centuries by the symbol of a black prince, after the symbol of the lion of St. Mark. Sardinia, whose flag includes four heads of black men, eyes covered. In the most recent version, the cloth extends above his eyes. And Sicily, one of whose symbols is the Testa di Moro, a ceramic vase in the form of a black man’s head, paired with a vase in the form of a white woman’s head.”
The protagonist of the city
There are two theories about why the black figure appears on the flag. The first says it has to do with the reconquest of Spain which was occupied by the Moors by Christian kings from the Kingdom of Aragon who ruled over the Island as well, while the second says the figure is meant to be St. Maurice, who also had a strong following in southern France, which influenced the kings from Aragon.
The vases in Sicily depicting a Moorish prince originated with the legend of a local girl who fell in love with a Moor who was either a prince or a military commander. Before he could return to his family, she cut off his head, placed the head inside a vase on her balcony and grew basil in it, which grew so wild that the “vase” became a symbol of good fortune. Today such a vase can be found in almost every home in Sicily, along with another vase with a representation of the girl’s head.
The blacks are not depicted as slaves. They conquered Sicily. If we’re talking about Muslim rule in Sicily, one should remember that the conquest was carried out by Berber soldiers who were under the rule of Arabic aristocrats,” Buttitta explains.
“Of course, most of these objects may also be perceived as racist, but I want to show that history is a lot more complex than that. There’s a positive side to the story too, not only the dark side of slavery,” she adds.
“Today the Venetian moro is a prince and the protagonist of the city, despite the past, which included slavery and racism. We see a transition to love for the other, for the different and exotic. Though, of course, exoticism can often be perceived as racism too.”