Visualizing the Italian Renaissance as a Space to Talk About Race

The Image of the Black in Western Art was a research project begun in the 1960s by the Menil family in response to the US Civil Rights movement. Its initial goal was to catalogue all of the works of art throughout European and American art history that featured Black subjects as a means of revealing a more diverse narrative of “western” history. Since its inception, the project has continued to expand through publications, exhibitions, and lectures, and it is now housed at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard, and most of its image collection has been made available online through Artstor.

With the support of Humanities Engage, I am developing a module that draws upon the Image of the Black's digitized image collection. The goals of this module are to introduce students to a long and nuanced history of European and African contact and to situate the Italian Renaissance as a phenomenon contemporaneous with the expansion of European colonialism and the slave trade. We also aim to push students to think about the ways in which works of art can both reflect and give shape to ideologies of race, including deeply-rooted ideals of whiteness and anti-Blackness that we continue to reckon with to this day.

This module is a collaboration between a stellar team of art historians who have been working together to develop two sister modules that both utilize The Image of the Black Collections: I specialize in premodern race and representations of Blackness; Rebecca Giordano specializes in modern and contemporary issues of race, art, and identity in the Americas; Christopher Nygren specializes in early modern art and theory; and Gretchen Bender specializes in art historical pedagogy. As Chris and I work on incorporating the Image of the Black into Chris's Italian Renaissance course, Rebecca and Gretchen are examining the history of the Image of the Black as an institution for Gretchen's Museums, Society, and Inclusion course.

I've been combing through the Artstor collection to gather images made in Italy from approximately 1400-1600 to create a virtual gallery for students to explore. This is currently filled with about 160 images. There are far more in the historical record, but not all have great digital photographs. Our current plan is to introduce students to this subject material with a selection of a few relevant readings to ground the discussion. Students will be asked to explore the Artstor gallery and will then closely examine an image of their choosing with the guidance of a worksheet. After they complete this task and post their results to Canvas to share with their classmates, course lecture time will be dedicated to examining a handful of key case studies to contextualize student's findings from their time in Artstor.

One particularly great thing about approaching this topic in this moment is that there is an incredibly rich historiography on Premodern Critical Race Studies which we can turn to as we craft our own curriculum. Scholars in this field, who are predominantly scholars of literature and Shakespeare (check out #ShakeRace), have created a wealth of resources for research as well as pedagogy. The recent Critical Race Conversations at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Kim F. Hall's essay "Beauty and the Beast of Whiteness" and her recent lecture titled "Othello was my Grandfather", Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi's conversation on Teaching Anti-Racism through Shakespeare, The Medieval Academy's webinar on "Race, Racism, and Teaching the Middle Ages," are but a small handful of the open-access sources available to teachers looking to reimagine their own curriculum in a critical manner. If you're looking for a place to build your own bibliography for research as well, regardless of your discipline, start by looking at the speakers featured in the RaceB4Race conferences run by ASU. They represent the cutting edge of scholars working in this discipline. Our goals for this module project are to closely examine the methods already established by such scholars, which are rooted in critical race theory and anti-racist praxis, and to translate them for the art history classroom. We'll be posting again in a week or so to let you know how it goes!

Jacqueline Lombard
History of Art and Architecture
August 17, 2020

For my post-module reflections, see Race, Representation, and the Renaissance: Virtual Gallery Visits for the Art Historical Classroom.

Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students