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A Portrait in Black and White

A 16th century painting tells a story of African-European relations and a family feud.

November 28, 2001|DARRYL FEARS | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — She looks like an ordinary little girl, holding the hand of an ordinary woman. But the 16th century painting of young Giulia de' Medici with her aunt on display at the National Gallery of Art is now considered to be the first European portrait to capture a girl of African descent.

How the granddaughter of a slave came to be painted with a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in Italian history--and painted out many years later--reads like a script from "Dynasty" and sheds light on a little-studied period of African-European relations.

The girl's identity was uncovered not by scholars in Europe or the United States, but by a Canadian scholar who received vital help from an independent art researcher.

The reason for the oversight, the researcher said, is that the nation's overwhelmingly white art institution directors and curators have shown little interest in studying the presence of Africans in European works of art.

"Situations like this come to the fore and are not exploited," said Mario Valdes, the researcher who helped Gabrielle Langdon identify Giulia. "The importance [of the painting] to me is that it says to the black community that we've had extremely powerful people in European history already, and very powerful families descend from them to this day."

Giulia de' Medici was the daughter of Alessandro de' Medici, the first duke of Florence. Historians say Alessandro, whose mother is identified as Simunetta, a black slave from Northern Africa, was the son of Giulio de' Medici, who became a cardinal and then Pope Clement VII.

The portrait of Giulia and her aunt Maria Salviati, painted by Pontormo, has been in the United States almost a century. The discovery of Giulia's identity came seven years ago.

In 1902, Henry Walters purchased the painting from an Italian collection, and it went on display in what eventually became the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. At the time, Maria Salviati was the only figure visible. But 35 years later, when the painting was given a routine X-raying and cleaning, museum director Edward King detected another figure in front of her.

King believed that he had uncovered a rare find--a childhood image of Cosimo, the great military leader of Florence. A few years later, a historian contended that the child appeared too young to be Cosimo. In 1955, another historian discovered a 17th century inventory record of Pontormo's portrait describing the child as una puttina, a common Romance language reference to a girl.

Finally, in 1989, Langdon, a former professor at the University of Michigan's campus in Florence, took an interest while researching women in Renaissance portraiture. This child, she wrote in a thesis, wasn't dressed the way a boy of that era would have been, and the hair, which was parted, also would have been atypical of boys. Who, she wondered in print, was she?

When Valdes read the thesis, he thought he knew. He had been researching the African presence in the Medici family since his youth in Belize because of his own mulatto ancestry. The child resembled both a portrait of Duke Alessandro and one of Giulia as a woman.

He called Langdon and asked: "Do you think that it could be Giulia, Alessandro de' Medici's daughter?"

Langdon dug some more and eventually built a strong case for Valdes' assumption. When she published it in the Canadian Art Review, it resounded throughout the art world--but not to universal acceptance.

Giulia de' Medici was a very rich girl, even after her father was murdered by an insane cousin in 1537. Her brother, Giulio, was next in line to be duke, and she could possibly have been a duchess. But they were both no more than 6 years old.

So their white cousin Cosimo stepped in. Cosimo went on to become grand duke of Tuscany and one of the greatest warriors in Italian history, but when he first became duke of Florence, in 1537, many in the city knew that Giulio and Giulia had more Medici blood than he running through their veins, Langdon said.

Cosimo commissioned Pontormo to paint a portrait of Giulia with his mother, Maria Salviati, according to Langdon. The painting of the protective-looking Salviati looming over the innocent girl would show Florence that Cosimo had good intentions toward his cousin's offspring.

Langdon said Cosimo treated Giulia "extremely well. Politically it suited his purposes to treat her that way."

He gave her "a handsome dowry," Langdon said. At Giulia's first wedding, in 1555, there was a procession of some 200 horses, and she was well-received by residents in Florence and by cardinals in Rome. Her grandfather, after all, was a pope.

But Giulia wanted more, Langdon said. She asked for what Cosimo could not give her--a position equal to that of his wife, Eleonora de Toledo. A rift in the family followed, and her image was painted out of the portrait sometime in the 1600s.

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