Who is seen?

Detail, Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge, Vittore Carpaccio, 1494

Ever since I took this photo of a detail of the Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio at the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Venice, I’ve wondered about this elegant man. I wondered about the appropriateness of sharing it on social media, and wondered about whether I was more attracted to the man’s costume than the man. What I didn’t wonder about was whether I was in the presence of beauty.

It took the recent uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to move me to examine my attraction to the African gondolier. Renaissance scholar Kate Lowe, to whom this reflection is indebted, writes that in Venice the practice of owning slaves – both black and white persons – was common, as was the practice of granting manumission on the death of the owner, or when the slave reached the age when his or her value was outweighed by the cost of their care – if ‘care’ is the proper word at all.

The fate of the freed person was still bound to the reputation of the house to which they had ‘belonged.’ The household’s influence, combined with the skills of the individual – either acquired in Venice or earlier in Africa – were determining factors in any possibility of future employment. Growing up in a port and being familiar with nautical practices from knotting to navigation, for example, would increase the odds of a manumitted slave obtaining work as a gondolier. Indeed, records of the gondoliers’ associations – associations only open only to ‘respectable’ persons who could pay the requisite dues – regularly include persons identified as ethiops or sarasin, indicating that they were African.

Still, it is impossible to say whether the gondolier in Carpaccio’s painting was a free man or not. As Lowe points out, “unless they are portrayed in chains, the legal status of black Africans … is always unclear: slaves cannot be distinguished from servants by their appearance or clothing.” She speculates that the clothing worn by the black gondolier portrayed by Carpaccio (which some have construed as household livery) is equally likely to have been the festival dress of the sestieri or districts of Venice. In and of itself, this tells us little; more revealing is the relative youth of Carpaccio’s gondolier. It leaves Lowe to conclude he was likely still a slave; and it leaves me to conclude that I am guilty of simultaneoulsy exoticizing the gondolier and Italian festive iconography.

With “Le Merchand de Venise” (2010), the artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, “transforms the African street vendors that populate tourist sties across Europe into Shakesperian heroes.” @mmuseumaxxi on Instagram.

Lowe concludes her paper by pointing out that:

“The occupations of the [freed] black Africans range from marble-worker to barrel-carrier to woodworker to boatman, whereas a possible African in another register of the same magistracy was a secondhand clothes-seller. Their involvement in basic manual and selling activity is another indicator that they had integrated into Venetian life, and were living the same sorts of working lives as the mass of other immigrants to the city, and indeed, as their Venetian counterparts.” 

Her impeccably researched piece is valuable for its contribution to the diasporic African history of Venice. However, the assertion that black Africans were “living the same sorts of working lives . . . as their Venetian counterparts” is optimistic. For all that employment as a gondolier might have integrated black Africans into the daily life of Venice, we cannot know how much race continued to factor in the social relations of even the most established of free slaves during the Renaissance. Just ask Othello if race mattered. (Though he was a general in the Venetian military and not a slave, Shakespeare’s “Moor” was still the victim of racial hatred because of his dark skin.)

Over 500 years later, race is still disturbingly central to our social behaviors, so embedded that all too many are stubbornly blind to it. Artists like Kiluanji Kia Henda render it visible. Henda reminds us that we, who are not of African descent, are all too often unlikely to ‘see’ black persons until they assume the trappings of white society – here, in Henda’s photograph, as a shopper not a vendor. (And not even then, as Christian Cooper discovered while birdwatching in Central Park.)

Detail from panel in Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Vittore Carpaccio, 1502-07

I am even more certain now that I didn’t truly see the gondolier in Carpaccio’s painting. I saw his clothes, his pose, his context, but saw nothing of the man. I suspect that for all the dignity with which he painted the gondolier, the same was true for Carpaccio. It would be too much to hope that this son of a leather merchant harbored proletariate sympathies for his subject. That said, he did paint the panels in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni which served Venice’s immigrant Slav community, (which may well have included some of my ancestors). At the very least we can credit him with documenting the vari-complected nature of Venice’s culture, built as it was on its mercenary relations with Africa and Asia – mercenary relations that would also bring out the best possible sense of ‘trade.’ Namely, exchange and hybridization.

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