By Guest Contributor Rama Musa
The legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once wrote, “Have I ever showed you my little blackamoor heads from Cartier with their enameled turbans? I’m told it’s not in good taste to wear blackamoors anymore, but I think I’ll revive them.”
A blackamoor head is a bejeweled bust of a dark-skinned African wearing a pseudo-Oriental turban. Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana recently caused a firestorm for featuring blackamoor imagery in their spring 2013 runway collection. Rapper Azealia Banks went on Twitter to boycott the brand. In its defense, D&G claims that the collection is inspired by Moorish imagery on Sicilian majolica ceramics. That’s a plausible rebuttal. The 9th-century Moorish invasion of southern Italy was so cataclysmic that it’s immortalized in Sicilian arts. But, the ornamental use of blacks in European luxury culture has a more complex history.
As early as the 1200s, African servants played a fashionable role in European courts. Rare, exotic, and expensive, their black bodies became synonymous with luxury. In the groundbreaking book, Blacks in Renaissance Europe, various historians note the aristocratic obsession with the African. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) so closely associated himself with African servants that a royal pretender in the 1280s kept an entourage of Africans to lend credibility to his fake persona. Marchesa of Mantua Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) went through extraordinary lengths to procure African children as human accessories. Catherine of Austria (1507-1578) showed off the opulence of her cosmopolitan court by gifting enslaved Africans to her family and favorites.
With its pseudo-Oriental clothing and jewelry, the blackamoor is a caricature of the Arab, the black African, and the Muslim. It’s unfortunate that his earrings, an African adornment, became an emblem of enslavement in European culture. In the 20th century elite jewelers such as Cartier, Nardi, and Verdura designed blackamoor brooches. Naturally, a new batch of European elites was again the most insatiable collectors of blackamoors. The visual language of race and representation in these brooches has received little attention.
Alberto Nardi, the third-generation owner of the eponymous Venetian jewelry house, says that his grandfather, Giulio Nardi, was the first to create Venetian blackamoors. In the 1920s the elder jeweler drew inspiration from the Morčić, crudely designed blackamoor jewelry from the Dalmatian coast, a former territory of the Venetian republic, La Serenissima. A spokesperson from the City of Rijeka Office says the jewelry commemorate the 16th-century retreat of Barbary pirates, vassals of the Ottoman Empire who terrorized the Adriatic coast. The Dalmatian blackamoors–dark-skinned with thick lips–appear to be someone’s idea of a black person. Muslims from Iberian Spain enlisted their enslaved Africans to plunder and pluck Christians off the Mediterranean coast. It’s possible that the Barbary pirates did the same.
Nardi also ascribes their brooches to the iconography of Shakespeare’s Othello; a company representative says their brooches embody “a character that at best represents the fusion of the different cultures and artistic influences related to Venice.” The Venetian jeweler insists that the defining characteristic of their blackamoors is that the facial features “does not reproduce [the face] of a Nubian, but more of an Ottoman prince.”
It’s again interesting to see this cultural cross-dressing of the African in the European imagination. With its jet-black complexion, wide nose, and thick lips, the first brooch’s (Fig. 1) physiognomy looks nothing like an Ottoman. Instead, its features are indistinguishable from Africans who appear in European paintings such as Portrait of a Negro Buttoning His Shirt.
The blackamoor’s facial expression is akin to a jolly servant who’s eager to please and less of a valiant general, craving to conquer. Shakespeare’s Othello can’t be found in this brooch. There’s a spectacular contrast between the enormous emerald embedded in the blackamoor’s body and the passive obedience written on his face. Here, the age-old lexicon of the enslaved African and his European master is visually communicated: acting as a sturdy mantelpiece, the African conspicuously displays and symbolizes the opulence of those who own him.
The second blackamoor (Fig 2) has a similar physiognomy, but with clear differences in the visual language. His deep-set eyes peer with determination, and his facial expression beams with masculine dignity. Though the blackamoor wears the earring of the enslaved African, the embedded black opal in his body is an essential piece in the armor of a decorated general. This blackamoor answers to no master.
The two Nardi blackamoors mirror the contradictory Renaissance stereotypes of the black African: as a valiant general worthy of respect or a savage deserving of servitude. Collectors of the Nardi blackamoors include a bevy of wealthy, white women such as Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Hutton, and Queen Paola of Belgium.
Between the 1920s and 1950s, Cartier’s jewels were stylistically influenced by the jewelry traditions of Indian and other foreign cultures. The ubiquitous use of black enamel and colorful gemstones was à la mode. But, the Cartier blackamoors are not benign objects of fanciful stones and superior craftsmanship: they communicate the visual language of race and representation.
The 1938 Art Deco piece (Fig. 3) incorporates many African elements not seen in other blackamoors. This brooch looks unmistakably African, and it wears a fez, a cylindrical-shaped felt hat originating from Fez, Morocco. The Cartier piece also has a row of gold rings or coils, an accessory that represents beauty in South African Ndebele culture. It’s no surprise that a Parisian firm would design such a jewel given that in general, the French are fanatical about authenticity in non-European cultures. In 1931, the City of Lights hosted the International Colonial Exhibition, a staged human zoo displaying colonized cultures in their “native” dress and “primitive” surroundings.
The next Cartier brooch (Fig. 4), a piece designed in 1950, also has strong African themes. Instead of the pseudo-Oriental turban, this brooch has parceled pieces of emeralds and diamonds which upon closer inspection, resembles the traditional headscarves worn by West African women. Furthermore, the blackamoor is accented with a cluster of coral beads, a presumed reference to the riches Europeans “found” in foreign lands. Fashionable francophone women such as Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland notoriously hoarded Cartier blackamoors. In 1985, Beaux-Arts Magazine noted the “extravagant price paid for a “Negro Head” [sic] with turquoise headdress when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s in Saint-Moritz.” Designed in 1937 for the Begum Aga Khan, the brooch sparked a fierce bidding war between Greek billionaire Stavros Niarchos and an anonymous American collector.
Sicilian jeweler Fulco Santostefano della Cerda (1898-1978), Duke of Verdura, designed exquisite neo-Baroque jewels in the 1940s as well as blackamoor brooches. Patricia Corbett curiously notes in the jeweler’s biography that as a young aristocrat living in Palermo, Italy, Verdura was gifted an “exotic” African playmate from Italian Somaliland.
The two Verdura blackamoors (Figure 5 and Figure 6) are unique because they each mount an embracing pair on a single brooch. The more illustrious of the two is the first brooch which features a cabochon emerald weighing a whopping .92 carats. In 1961 Verdura specially designed this jewel for Babe Paley, one of New York’s most glamorous socialites. This blackamoor is set in 18-karat yellow gold and has 24 canary yellow diamonds, 28 emeralds, 38 rubies, and 42 white diamonds.
The most fascinating thing about these two Vedura blackamoors is that, in addition to their pseudo-Oriental turbans, both figures wear expensive 16th-century Italian costumes: a white chemise (as represented by the baroque pearls), a jacket with puffed sleeves that is tapered at the wrists, and cream-colored leather gloves. According to British historian Kate Lowe, only nobles and aristocrats could afford such bespoke finery. It’s ironic that the Africans are dressed in high-class European clothing given their marginalized status in Renaissance society.
“Why is the black figure a symbol of opulence when clearly they are not the owners of the wealth?” asks Adrienne Childs, an art historian who specializes in race and representation in European and American art. Indeed, it’s fascinating that throughout the centuries, the same battalion of collectors–the white and wealthy–all grabbed a black servant and a black-bodied brooch to advertise their opulence. Are Nardi, Cartier, and Verdura the accidental heirs of Arab slavers who supplied Africans to an elite clientele? Childs says, “Those who were making these brooches were not concerned by its history. By the time that they’re creating these works, [the blackamoor] is just an undisputed symbol of wealth, and they’re not thinking about why.”
Is the racial construction of the African as an exotic curiosity that one covets and collects a cunning European device that conceals the brutality of human subjugation? Or is European culture so lacking in pizzazz that only a black figure can breathe life into it? In the second volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, the noted African-American scholar Alain LeRoy Locke writes, “… the Negro page attendant, though grounded in slavery, still preserved something of the glamour of the exotic.”
Rama Musa is a Sierra Leone-born American writer covering culture, foreign affairs, health, and technology. She’s a former Fulbright Fellow who has reported and researched across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.