2019 Spring Cahleb Derry Italy Temple Rome Temple Semester

A Painting Come Alive: I Saw Myself in Venice

Earlier in the semester, in a FaceTime conversation with my instructor and advisor back at school, I expressed frustrations towards my Masters of Renaissance Art class. I felt as if the course was giving a rather whitewashed critical analysis of Renaissance art, and I had been accustomed to a version of art history that at least acknowledged the absence of black and brown voices in the canonical conversation. By virtue of acknowledging that absence, past courses have made an effort to discuss how the art we decide is “historical” and “important” is implicated in that erasure and marginalization. I was yearning for that sort of reckoning with Renaissance history, and was ultimately disappointed with what I was presented with. After telling my instructor how excited I was for our class trip to Venice in February, he let me know that if I felt race was being glossed over or neglected based on what we looked at here in Rome, it would be impossible not to discuss race in a place whose artistic and architectural history is so deeply tied to North Africa.

He was not wrong at all.

Venice is a painting made alive—the colorful buildings, it’s aquatic framework, and its bustling streets make the place irresistably compelling. Gondolas and windy alleyways define the city, and the way art is literally built into the city uniquely differs from other Italian art-hub cities such as Florence, and of course, Rome. Its infrastructure is an artwork in itself—the place was built to be preserved, observed, and harnessed for its beauty. Although I took more photos than I have in any other place, even portrait mode could not accurately capture the beauty of the space.

The trip was also eventful in regards to my qualms with my class—a conversation on Saturday with my professor actually consisted of me explaining my displeasure with how some of the course material was handled, and my professor openly asked how to better captivate students of color. I explained that a broader, more intentional conversation about race in the paintings we see would suffice to start. This conversation proved to be incredibly impactful—the highlight of the trip actually ended up being a visit to the Academia museum, where we saw pieces that featured more black figures than I’d seen before in Rome. A specific painting, pictured above, caught my eye. It featured numerous aristocrats on gondolas in the Venezian canal, and one central figure, clad in an absolutely decadent ensemble, rowing a boat. His dark skin stood in contrast with the white individuals around him, and his own centrality in the piece stood in such contrast with his peripheral role portrayed in the painting. The irony in this 13th century piece was so heavy-handed that is almost felt purposeful—the eye was so quickly drawn to this figure, who sat at the bottom center of the photo, yet he was presumably a slave who existed solely for the purposes of serving wealthy, white Venezians. His outfit, presumably a version of the uniform that his counterparts wore, is that of a debonaire—his red and blue highlights are consistent throughout his ensemble and the white feather on top of his head places an emphasis on the continuity of his ensemble. However, his face shows apathy, perhaps despair. The smiles on the faces of the other Venezians captured in the painting is not present on his face. I imagine the painter, who depicts other black figures as mere shadows and caricatures, did not intend to tell so powerfully the story of this man, but my eye was compelled to read that story from the moment I saw the painting. My professor’s acknowledgement of these figures and their caricatorial depictions, despite the brevity of his comments, seemed to confirm these figures’ own existence and humanity—something I often questioned when we would gloss over giant sculptures of black slaves or darker figures hidden in the foreground of paintings who are depicted as animalistic or beastly. Venice’s live artwork scenery, to me, became a story told not just through the space itself but the artwork we saw, purely because I finally saw myself in it. 

I’m pretty excited for class this week. 

3 comments

  1. Again, another rich and powerful blog post Caleb. It is so great to hear your voice and to see the Italy you are experiencing. Thank you for your passion and honesty. m

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