Race, Representation, and the Renaissance: Virtual Gallery Visits for the Art Historical Classroom

In my last blog post, I introduced the pedagogical project that Chris Nygren and I undertook with the support of the Humanities Engage Collections-Based Curriculum Development Grant. The module we created, titled “Race, Religion, and Identity in the Renaissance,” was one of five modules (units) of the Introduction to Renaissance Art course that ran online in the fall of 2020. The module covered topics of European self-conception, shifting global identities in the wake of Columbus and colonization, and Christian perceptions of Judaism and anti-Blackness. These topics were explored through asynchronous recorded lectures, assigned reading materials, and synchronous small-group activities and discussions, all of which were delivered remotely. In this post, I'll talk specifically about our virtual “gallery tour” assignment, an activity I designed that overcame our inability to meet in person in a museum setting, gave students time to work closely with an image of their choosing, and prompted students to draw insightful connections about the relationships between race and representation in the Renaissance.

In approaching this activity, I had three goals. First, I wanted to introduce students to the sheer breadth of works of art from this period that feature Black subjects. To this end, I created a virtual “gallery tour.” Using Artstor’s group tool, I curated a make-shift exhibition with images drawn from the Image of the Black in Western Art's (IBWA) Artstor collection, plus a few supplemental images. To ensure student success, I created this gallery instead of sending them off on their own into the IBWA's Artstor database. We only wanted students searching through images relevant to the course material, which in this instance was about 140 images out of the database’s nearly 25,000. Because the metadata on the IBWA's Artstor is rather irregular and because the database contains numerous images of any one work of art, sending students off into the database to find the works we wanted them to see would have required too much of their time. There is much to be gained from having students grapple with such a database - Rebecca Giordano and Gretchen Bender embraced this messiness to create a fantastic module on collecting and curating that simulated real-life museum work for students using the same IBWA Artstor database. For our purposes, however, a curated gallery gave students a sandbox with plenty of room to explore with relative ease.

My second goal was for students to develop a working vocabulary for discussing issues of race, representation, and stereotypes. Before sending them into Artstor, we asked students to read Kate Lowe's "The Stereotyping Black Africans in Renaissance Europe" (2005), which paints a broad picture of how Black subjects appear in Renaissance art. This helped students contextualize the sheer breadth of works they were about to encounter. We also provided Geraldine Heng's definition of race from The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages (2018) to ground discussion in a common definition, buttressed by Stuart Hall's instructive definition of stereotypes from Representation (1997). These definitions assured a common vocabulary which was essential as we grappled with the differences between current and premodern notions of race. 

I asked students to spend about twenty minutes exploring the virtual gallery before selecting a single work that they would use to fill out a worksheet. I scaffolded the questions in the worksheet to help students connect the dots from visual markers of difference to the social and political roles and boundaries these differences signaled or enforced. First, I asked students to look for markers of physical or cultural difference such as dress, hair, skin color, facial features, held objects, etc. I then asked students to look at how these corporeal or cultural differences corresponded to differences of power or position in the scene - this could include noting if the Black subjects were limited to being servants or gondoliers, if they were dispersed throughout the image in different positions, if they were present but physically marginalized to the borders of the image rather than incorporated into the rest of the scene, or if they were the sole subject. Finally, I asked students to examine connections made by their work of art between social standing and markers of difference to determine the racial formations at play and to consider what insights their image could offer about the ways in which Black people were perceived in Renaissance Italy. I asked students to respond to their image in light of what they had read from Heng, Hall, and Lowe and to support their argument with visual evidence from their chosen work.

Overall, I was impressed with how students responded to the worksheet questions. They drew nuanced and interesting conclusions that were well-supported by the evidence in their chosen image. Because Artstor typically does not include written descriptions of works of art in their database entries in the way a real-life gallery might, students had to rely on their own instincts and insights, and they succeeded in doing so. Furthermore, very few works were chosen by multiple students, which I did not expect, and this bolstered later synchronous student discussions about the diversity of these representations.

I noticed, however, two things that I would like to mitigate the next time I run this activity. First, several students who chose to work on images of the Black Magus interpreted his ornamental attire and presence at the Nativity as a unilaterally “positive” representation of Blackness, leaving little room to consider the orientalist fantasies at play with this particular figure. While we would address the Magi in brief in the small group discussion that followed this activity, we should have prepared them better to consider such nuances. Second, some student responses revealed a tendency to talk about an individual work of art as if it represented a universally-held idea about race. Of course, no work of art can speak on behalf of an entire era and ideology. This made me realize that although art historical methodology and pedagogy typically hinges on close-reading, this activity being no exception, this methodology needs careful contextualization to avoid potential distortion of students’ perceptions of systemic issues or the “big picture.” I realized, however, that although many of the ideas students were suggesting were overstated in their importance, the fundamental arguments they were making about how race was construed within their image tended to be spot on. This offered a nice pathway for bringing together student findings in synchronous small-group discussion to help illuminate the complex and often contradictory nature of race, particularly in the premodern period. Overall, I believe that this assignment was a success, and it is one that I am eager to fine-tune and continue to use for both virtual and face-to-face classrooms in the future.

My third and final goal was to equip students to leave this course with the ability to discuss how most, if not all, of these works do not necessarily offer glimpses into the actual lives and experiences of Black people in Renaissance Italy, but that they instead have much more to say about to how white Europeans conceptualized their own selves. Effectively examining how ideas of Blackness were employed to define the roles and boundaries of whiteness, however, required lengthier engagement with issues of patronage, audience, and race theory than we had time to attend to within this one module. So, we extended this conversation into the next module on gender. Including portraits such as Titian’s Laura Dianti and Paris Bordone’s Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages into the following module allowed students to bring back the knowledge they’d acquired through their work with the Image of the Black to discuss how white womanhood and white masculinity functioned in each of these portraits of a white upper-class subject painted alongside their Black child servants or slaves. Extending this conversation into the next module also allowed us to avoid an isolated “race day” syllabus model. It made the Artstor activity and the module it was a part of the first, rather than the last, time that students would be expected to think about issues of race in the course. This cumulative approach was successful and helped students draw the connections necessary to understand these complex works of art, and it reinforced to students that race is a social force that must always be grappled with even when, or especially when, the subjects of the work of art in question are white. 

History of Art and Architecture
October 26, 2020

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