Fifteen-century Florentine paintings regularly include black figures, almost always as men with low social status. In The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (1985), Paul Kaplan briefly considered the absence of African kings in fifteenth-century Central Italian representations of the Adoration of the Magi. This talk explores a related question: why do Florentines begin to show blacks with dignity and importance at the end of the fifteenth century? In the 1490s, a half dozen paintings show Africans both prominently and in positive roles, as recent or future Christian converts. This hitherto unnoticed phenomenon must reflect the Florentines increased awareness of African Christians. The opening section considers the favourable status enjoyed by Ethiopian Christians, in light of a new (and controversial) paradigm for how Europeans saw Africans in the Quattrocento. The next two sections consider African figures in works by Filippino Lippi, the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi), and the Miracle of St Philip (Strozzi Chapel).
A Teaching Professor at Syracuse University Florence, Jonathan Nelson has published extensively on Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture. His books include The Patron’s Payoff: Economic Frameworks for Conspicuous Commissions in Renaissance Italy, with Richard Zeckhauser (2008), and monographic studies on Filippino Lippi, with Patrizia Zambrano (2004), Leonardo da Vinci (2007), and Plautilla Nelli (2000, 2008). He also co-curated Representing Infirmity: Diseased Bodies in Renaissance Italy (2020), and exhibition catalogs on Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form (2009), Botticelli and Filippino (2004), and Venus and Cupid: Michelangelo and the New Ideal of Beauty (2002). He is currently completing Filippino Lippi: Ingenuity and Invention (Reaktion Books) and co-editing “Bad Reception: Negative Reactions to Italian Renaissance Art” a special number of the Mitteilingen des Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. He is co-editor of the ‘Elements of the Renaissance” series (Cambridge UP).