Othello, Blackness, and 16th and 17th Century Art

A central idea in discussing Othello is “blackness”. As much as the European canon questions the existence of Black people in an attempt to erase them from history, they occupied as much space as anyone else. Something of note about the portraits is that a few of them are character studies, not commissions and therefore are anonymous. By gathering a handful of portraits I hope to challenge the perceptions that Black people never existed in art. 

School of Paolo Veronese
Portrait of a Moorish Woman
Italy (c. 1550s)
oil on canvas on panel
38mm x 25mm
This is a panting made by one of the students or collaborators of Paolo Veronese, the artist who also did The Wedding at Cana, which I’ve...

“Portrait of a Moorish Woman” by a student/collaborator of Paolo Veronese

c. 1550 Oil on panel

This first portrait was done by an unnamed student/collaborator of Paolo Veronese. Titled “Portrait of a Moorish Woman,” the subject is a young Black woman. Though no record exists of her name or identity unlike the portraits of Saint Maurice or Alessandro de Medici. Based on her finer clothing and that she has a portrait of her, my take away is that she could’ve been a noble of some kind. 


c.1534-35 Oil on panel

Alessandro was the last Medici to rule Florence. Duke from 1531-37 he commissioned the Fortezza de Basso in the town’s historic center and was the last Medici of the senior line to rule. He was assassinated by his friend and cousin Lorenzino de Medici to preserve the Florentine republic. Who funny enough was nicknamed “Lorenzaccio” (bad Lorenzino). Under the false pretense of meeting a beautiful widow, the hired assassin stabbed Alessandro to death. This event is detailed in Alfred de Musset’s play Lorenzaccio.

Portrait of an African Man - Wikipedia

“Portrait of an African Man” by Jan Mostaert  

c. 1525-1530 Oil on panel

The painting here created by Dutch painter Jan Mostaert depicts an unknown noble from the royal court in Malines of Margaret of Austria. 

Africans in America/Part 1/Portrait of a Moorish Woman

Portrait of an African Woman Katharina” by Albrecht Dürer

c. 1521 Charcoal 

The charcoal sketch here depicts a young woman, Katharina, a 20 year old enslaved to the Portuguese man João Brandão. Dürer drew her in 1521 when he visited Antwerp. What is inferred due to Brandão being in charge of a spice monopoly is that he trafficked her through trade and given her name, was converted to Christianity.


“Portrait of an African Man” by Albrecht Dürer

c. 1508 Charcoal 

This sketch was done nearly two decades after Katharina’s. The man is anonymous and Dürer most likely saw him in his hometown of Nuremburg. His clothes represent a lower social class, possibly noble retinue, free servant, or slave.

For anyone interested in learning about the importance of Black representation in Renaissance art, Stephanie Archangel and Nicole Jennings have a discussion over “Black in Rembrandt’s Time,” a book turned exhibit in the Rembrandt House. It follows identity and truth in the face of a history fraught with white supremacy.

Black in Rembrandt's Time: Kolfin, Elmer, Runia, Epco: 9789462583726:  Amazon.com: Books

Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX_Locf6thI


Consulted website: https://blackcentraleurope.com/