The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio, painted around 1495–96, is one of the most fascinating depictions of contemporary life in Renaissance Venice. Although it is primarily a religious painting, it also reveals an aspect of the life of Black Africans in Venice.
The painting shows a man’s miraculous healing and was painted for the School of St. John the Evangelist (a group of lay people in Venice devoted to charitable activities) as part of a series to commemorate various miracles attributed to the relic of the cross which was held at the school itself. However, this event is not the central episode of the painting, since it takes place in the wide loggia in the upper left corner. Instead, a view of the Grand Canal fills most of the canvas, and scenes from everyday life play out.
At the time, the Rialto Bridge, pictured in the painting, was the only bridge connecting the two sides of the Canal. Rialto was the heart of the commercial and financial life of Venice. People from all over the world came to the prominent markets. Headquarters of foreign merchants like the Germans and the Turks were close by, and at the time of Carpaccio it was possible to bump into people from many parts of the globe. A century later, in 1581, Venetian writer Francesco Sansovino described the cosmopolitan city as “a room frequented by people of different languages and countries.”
The scene shows people in contemporary clothing, from Venetian senators in their red robes to elegant dandies with their striped stockings and long, curly hair (they were members of theatrical associations, known as “Compagnie della calza” or “Companies of stockings”). But the most striking aspect of the picture is the depiction of the gondolas in the middle of the canal. The gondoliers are very elegantly dressed, perhaps because of the festive occasion.
The Black gondolier depicted in the foreground on the left also reveals more about life in Renaissance Venice. The presence of Black sub-Saharan Africans in Venice is well-known to historians and it is part of the history of the Mediterranean slave trade. Historians have calculated that between seven and nine million individuals were involved in the Mediterranean slave trade from 1500 and 1800. Europeans and North Africans were usually captured and enslaved by corsairs engaged in the ongoing conflict between Spain (and its allies) and the Ottoman Empire. From the 1450s, people from the western coast of Africa were enslaved by the Portuguese and brought to Europe.
The story of how enslaved Black Africans lived in Venice is particularly difficult to tell because the terminology related to slaves and servants and to possible sub-Saharan Africans can be confusing. In archival documents from the time, Black Africans in Venice were often described as “saraceni,” which mostly indicated Arabs or Muslims from the region of Maghreb in North Africa and the Ottoman area; as “Ethiopians”; or by their skin color as “mori,” the Italian word for “dark,” which can translate to “of dark complexion”; or as “neri” or “negri” meaning “black” or “blacks.”
Some enslaved sub-Saharan Africans arrived in Venice as children or adolescents, but the city could also be a third or fourth destination in a forced diaspora. In Venice, Black men and women were usually employed as servants in patrician households, performing different jobs in connection with the management of the house. The men frequently worked as gondoliers since boats were the most common way of getting around the city. The Venetian patrician Marin Sanudo, a contemporary of Carpaccio, wrote in his Diaries: “There are certain designated small boats, covered in pitch and of beautiful shape, rowed by Black Saracens or other servants who know how to row.”
Black boatmen also appear on the painting by Carpaccio at the Getty Museum, Hunting on the Lagoon. This painting depicts a scene of Venetian bird hunters who use clay pellets rather than arrows in order to stun the birds and not damage their plumage.
Wills and other records show that it was common in Venice for slaves to be freed at the death of an owner, or after a number of years of service. In recent research Kate Lowe has revealed that in Venice several slaves, after they were freed, worked as gondoliers or “traghettatori” (ferryman) carrying people back and forth across the canal.
While studying the charters of several guilds of ferryman (known as “Mariegole”), Lowe discovered that several Black Africans were included and that some of them held the top ranks of these associations. In 1514 the “Gastaldo” (the top officer) of one of these associations of ferryman was identified as “ser Giovanni ethiops” which translates to “Mr. John from Ethiopia.” He was an African man who had previously been enslaved and was employed by the patrician Cappello household. His story traces a path from domestic slave to freed gondolier, who held a position of authority over his peers within the Guild.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to know the precise social status of the Black gondoliers depicted by Carpaccio. But it is possible that they were not servants or enslaved workers in a patrician family, but freed men who had become professional gondoliers or boatmen. The painting provides an important clue to the lives of Black Africans in early modern Europe, a story that is being told more and more fully as scholars work to connect archival and visual records.
Paul H. D. Kaplan, “Italy, 1490-1700”. In The Image of the Black in Western Art. III/1 From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition: Artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque, ed. David Bindman and Harvey Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge, MA, 2010, pp. 93-101.
Kate Lowe, “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly, 66, 2, 2013, pp. 412-452.
Peter Mark, “Africans in Venetian Renaissance Painting.” Renaissance 2. A Journal of Afro-American Studies, 4, 1975, pp. 7-11.
Robert Smith, “In Search of Carpaccio’s African Gondolier.” Italian Studies, 34, 1979, pp. 45-59.