9929 AN EXTRAORDINARY PAIR OF CARVED POLYCHROME AND SHELL-MOUNTED NUBIAN FIGURES STANDING ON BASES SET WITH ROCK CRYSTAL Possibly Naples. First Quarter Of The Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 26″ (66 cm); Diameter: 9 1/2″ (24 cm). Height: 23 1/4″ (59 cm); Diameter: 9 1/2″ (24 cm).
Of carved and gilded wood, shells and minerals. Each in the form of a standing beturbaned figure, one holding a swag of shells, the other with the swag aloft. Both set on bases of naturalistic rockwork formed of rock crystal above circular bases raised upon short turned feet. Formerly with glass domes. Some small losses.
Distinguished Private Collection, Lisbon.
This enchanting pair of beturbaned nubian figures, ornately decorated with shells, illustrates the idealization of the exotic, popularized after exploratory campaigns in Africa and the Middle East in the mid-late 18th century by figures like Baron Vivant Denon and Sir Richard Burton. The depiction of Africans in European art extends back to antiquity, with Ancient Greek sculpture and pottery painting, ancient Roman floor mosaics and wall frescoes. Black Africans were widely described as “Aethiops” in classical Greece, their skin color being the primary identifying characteristic in descriptions and artistic depictions. As was the case in ancient Egypt, the Greeks “[showed] no trace of color-prejudice,”1 and black Africans were “integrated into various levels of Greek society.”2 They held positions of writers, philosophers, athletes, military commanders, freemen and slaves.
In early Rome, however, black Africans were normally represented as servants, a convention that continued in Renaissance Europe. Such stylized depictions of black Africans were first carved in Venice in the late 17th century, when the curiosity amongst Europeans for African and Middle Eastern subjects, which increased with expanded trade, encouraged these portrayals, often richly dressed, to be displayed in aristocratic households as a symbol of status. The attire varies, but most are shown wearing a turban or other head covering and are embellished with gilding or jewels. Examples were executed in precious materials, such as exotic woods, silver set with gemstones or, as in this case, mounted with shells, rock crystal and shimmering polychrome painted decoration.
The present sculptures differ (from depictions of servants) in that they ennoble the black personages. Their costumes are fantastic interpretations of Moorish royal garb. Although more ornately decorated, the shape and style of the pants, waistcoat, jacket and crowned turban are consistent with royal apparel of the period. A more realistic version can be seen in the Neapolitan crèche figure of a Moorish king, from the second half of the 18th century, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (figure 1). The fascination with exotic costume carried over into contemporary dress and elements were incorporated into 19th century clothing. The turban headdress in particular was at the height of fashion; the March 1818 edition of La Belle Assemblée, an early 19th century fashion magazine, depicts a woman donning a wonderful tiered turban with pearl swags and tassels, much in line with the present examples (figure 2).
Each nubian figure holds a garland, one at his waist and the other above his head, applied with carefully cut and assembled shells in the form of flowers. The great variety of shells available in the Mediterranean, both in form and color, was ideal for adapting into mosaics and delicate flower-work, thus production in Naples and Sicily was some of the finest. In addition to sculptural elements, shellwork was used to create pictures, particularly architectural scenes. A pair of late 18th century shell and coral pictures, from the collection of Daisy Fellowes at Donnington Grove, depicting classical buildings among flowering trees (figure 3), is thought to have been created in Naples.
The figure holding the garland aloft wears a medallion at his belt which bears the inscription “Unis à Jamias,” or “joined forever” (figure 4). This phrase was used on objects made in celebration of love, such as a gift for one’s betrothed or as a wedding present, for example a carved plaque in the Historisches Museum, Basel, made in 1795 by Aubert Joseph Parent to celebrate the marriage of Basle couple Dietrich Forcart and Gertrud Merian. The present figures were doubtless created to commemorate such an occasion.
The curious and magical nature of the figures is enhanced by the physiognomy of the broad faces with quirky upcurving noses.
1. Snowden Jr., Frank M. “The Negro In Ancient Greece.” American Anthropologist 50 (1948): 31-44. American Anthropological Association. American Anthropological Association. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://www.aaanet.org/sections/gad/history/010snowden.pdf>.
2. Hemingway, Sean, and Colette Hemingway. “Africans in Ancient Greek Art”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/afrg/hd_afrg.htm (January 2008)