Teaching Race in Renaissance Italy 

Anna Wainwright

[print edition page number: 187]
How do we, as students and teachers of the Italian Renaissance, talk about race? What was race in Renaissance Italy, and how does it relate to race in the United States today? Most students who enter the classroom on the first day of a course on the Italian Renaissance will not be anticipating any discussion of race. When I first ask students in my survey course on medieval and Renaissance Italian culture what they think when they hear the term “Renaissance,” they tend to offer up answers that demonstrate just how ingrained the collective — and selective — understanding of the period is. They talk about rebirth; an opposition with the “Dark Ages”; beautiful art; the “Renaissance man.” Images that students select in a first assignment to represent what they think of the era reveal a fairly uniform visual perspective of the Italian Renaissance. Two of the most frequently chosen images are Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (see figure 1) and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (see figure 2). Both images, which present idealized human forms, male and female respectively, reinforce a visual vocabulary of the period that centers whiteness and the able-bodied, and suggests homogeneity as ideal. It is a visual paradigm that has been steadily bolstered in the intervening 500 years, intertwined with the myth of the Renaissance “individual” imposed on us by historian Jacob Burckhardt a century and a half ago, which persists in the popular imagination despite having been dismantled by scholars of the period in the intervening years.[1] [188]

This is certainly how the Italian Renaissance continues to be presented in many an American college classroom. Students often come away from such with a cast of characters that is only slightly expanded from that with which they arrived — an assortment of old, dead white men (and perhaps a few women) who reinforce their notion that the past has nothing to do with them. (This is, of course, in the United States; in most Italian classrooms, the women don’t generally make an appearance either.) This discrepancy has only become more pronounced as the student body in American higher education, along with the general U.S. population, has changed. As literary critics Kimberly Ann Coles, Kim F. Hall and Ayanna Thompson observe in their manifesto “BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” “Future students, the pool from which we must recruit our majors, look less and less like the cohort of previous generations for whom our current degrees were constructed.”[2] What is more, as Coles, Hall, and Thompson make clear, it is both “practical and ethical” to make race visible in the early modern classroom, as “the occlusion of race as an object of study in our research and in our classrooms aids white nationalist narratives.” This call to teachers of English literature is just as meaningful for instructors of Italian Studies, both in the United States and in Italy. Why is it important, after all, that students learn what happened in sixteenth-century Florence if it doesn’t connect in some way to their own lives, their own experiences, and the world in which they live today? I say this not to dismiss learning about the past “for its own sake” out of hand but to underline the disconnect students often feel with the way history is presented to them — and to suggest that the Italian Renaissance has more to do with their present than they have been led to believe, including the way race is weaponized in Italy today, and even in the United States.

Race as a concept and part of Renaissance life, however, has not been a central conversation in scholarship on Italy. This has made it difficult [189] for instructors to know where to start if they do want to bring the subject of race to the classroom. But the primary sources are brimming with racialized references: Petrarch extolled a white beauty, Dante condemned Mohammed to Hell, and Ariosto and Tasso both marshaled crusading themes and deified the violent expeditions of Christopher Columbus in their respective epics (and Tasso borrowed from the Aethiopica to create his heroine Clorinda, a white woman born to Black Ethiopian royalty). Racialized narratives around non-Italians, especially Muslims, Jews, and Black Africans, as well as the violent oppression of ethnic and religious minorities throughout the city-states, influenced this cultural production, and are important parts of Italian Renaissance history. Enslaved Black Africans were being bought and sold across the peninsula by the fifteenth century. Isabella d’Este (1474–1539), the “First Lady of the Renaissance,” was asking her favorite buyer to find her a young girl “as Black as possible.”[3] The Venetian Ghetto was established to confine Jews in 1516, with Rome following suit in 1555.[4] By the end of the sixteenth century, the Jesuits forbade Jewish and Muslim converts (and their children) to Catholicism from entering the order.[5] As scholar Nancy Bisaha and others have shown, the concept of “Europe” itself developed from Italian humanists like Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1404–1464, the future Pope Pius II), who set Christian Europeans in opposition to the Ottoman “Turks” and other Muslims. “The Turkish race,” Piccolomini wrote in his 1458 treatise Europea, “is Scythian and uncivilized”; Christian Europeans therefore had to be united against them. (Indeed, this call for Christian, European unity against the “Muslim menace” continued on in treatises and political [190] orations throughout the sixteenth century.)[6] This wealth of evidence, however, has not led to much scholarly discussion of a broader pattern of racial formation present in early modern Italy, nor does it tend to be what students think of when they think of “Renaissance Italy.”[7]

Yet models for this kind of work exist in adjacent fields. For the last three decades, scholars in English literature have argued the case for race as a central strain of identity formation in the Renaissance.[8] Instructors and students now have a rich world of scholarly literature with which to engage critically on race with William Shakespeare, with John Milton, and with Aphra Behn, among other sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English authors, as other essays in this collection demonstrate. Indeed, it is worth noting that some of the most straightforward engagement of the presence of race in early modern Italian literature has come not from Italianists, but from scholars who have pioneered the study of race in English literature. Kim F. Hall’s two groundbreaking studies of white beauty in English Petrarchism (1996 and 2003) — in which she argues that lyric poetry’s codification of a particular brand of white beauty is intrinsically linked to white supremacy — remain perhaps the most useful interventions into whiteness in Petrarch’s lyric itself.[9] Dennis Britton has recently observed that many of the racial anxieties and ambiguities evident in [191] Shakespeare’s Othello were already present in the Italian novella on which it is based, Cinthio’s Un capitano moro. Othello, Britton argues, is one of Shakespeare’s most “Italian” plays, including in its attention to race: “it is set in Italy, it draws from Italian sources, it employs an Italian mode of dramatic composition, and it attempts to translate to its English audience Italian notions of race.”[10] That Othello — perhaps the Renaissance play most famous for the centrality of race to its plot — originates in an Italian novella is not much discussed in Italian Studies.[11] And yet Un capitano moro is not an aberration; Italian literature is filled with stories in which racial difference plays a starring role, as I discuss below.

One way to change the disconnect between the evidence and the popular perception of the Italian Renaissance is to start talking about race in the classroom, introducing students to the ways in which the period and the study of it have been complicit in how race works in our world today. The essays on Renaissance Italy in this collection offer a way into teaching race in the Italian context in art history, literature, and music. They should help instructors present the Italian Renaissance in ways that open up the past to new generations of students — not by anachronistically shoehorning in considerations of race, but by expanding and updating our syllabi to include the myriad ways in which race was present and in formation during the Italian Renaissance. As my co-editor Matthieu Chapman and I state in the introduction to this volume, we are always teaching race in the classroom, whether we do so intentionally or not. By not speaking out loud with our students about race, we are reinforcing “walls of whiteness” [192] around white students, and excluding BIPOC students from a history that is theirs, too.[12]

This volume comes at a time when numerous fields are rethinking their complicity in racism and white supremacy, including Classics and Medieval Studies.[13] Scholars of the Italian Renaissance, too, must acknowledge the field’s role in the history of white supremacy in the academy, as well as in American higher education. There is a through line from the Roman Empire to Mussolini’s fascism, to today’s white supremacy in America and Europe, and it runs right through the Italian Renaissance. We cannot uncritically present Italian humanism’s belief in their rightful inheritance of the classical past, for example, without acknowledging how that belief has been weaponized; nor can we consider texts by Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso without considering their role in the long history of Orientalism.

The pieces on Italy in this volume identify ways in which instructors might use Italian Renaissance materials to talk about race in the early modern world and today, and I would suggest that many chapters outside the borders of the Italian section of this volume would also be excellent [193] guides for lectures and activities in an Italian Renaissance classroom.[14] What I would like to add here are a few reasons why one might incorporate discussions of race into a standing Medieval and Renaissance syllabus — whether literature, history, or art history — and why, in many ways, this is just as important as or more so than developing a whole class on race in the Italian Renaissance. One reason is that, as many who write on teaching race in general have observed, race is a subject that almost always makes some students uncomfortable. Many American students, especially white students, have been taught that acknowledging race aloud is rude, awkward, or wrong. Moreover, white students have also been implicitly taught that race has nothing to do with them.[15] While more and more colleges and universities are instituting diversity requirements, many students will not voluntarily take a class with race in the title. In the college curriculum, race tends to be something that is only expected to be addressed in certain classes, in certain disciplines, by certain professors, for certain students. This structural inequity forces yet more labor onto scholars of color, and reinforces the notion that “race” is something only people of color have to think about, study, or teach. It is unfair to limit the heavy lifting on antiracist pedagogy to a few courses and professors, and doing so contributes to the further siloing of discussions of race. Intentionally including race in a class on the Italian Renaissance not only gives students a clearer picture of the past, but also fights against the compartmentalization of race in American higher education.

Dennis Looney, author of Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the “Divine Comedy,” observed at a panel at the Renaissance Society of America in 2018 that, in diversifying syllabi, instructors must be attentive to tokenism. It is not enough to devote one class period, or even one week, of the semester to issues of race in a class [194] (or to gender or class, for that matter); indeed, this tends to reinforce the idea for students that race is an issue that does not have to do with other aspects of study. (On a practical note, what happens if a student just happens to miss that class?) Rather, race should be integrated into a syllabus so that it is always present and up for discussion — since, as critical race scholars have amply shown, it is always already present.

For instructors committed to the idea that race is evident in Italian canonical texts and can only enrich classroom discussion, the next important question, then, is how we might define race in the Italian Renaissance with our students. Fortunately, there are ample and important resources for considering race in the early modern period, and they can be applied to the Italian context with judicious attention to context. As indicated above, I take as my basis the foundational work done in early modern English critical race studies by scholars such as Britton, Chapman, Hall, and Margo Hendricks, among many others, who have shown through their incisive and insightful scholarship how race existed and developed in Renaissance England.[16] Particularly productive for considering what we mean by “race” in the early modern period is Ian Smith’s grounding definition as “the product of several, often interrelated, categories of identification, a complex amalgam of codes that can be mobilized to ratify group exclusion and marginalization.”[17] This “complex amalgam of codes” in the Italian context included skin color, geography, lineage (both literary and familial), and religion. It can also be productive to think critically with students about whiteness in the early modern period. One of my students recently observed that the whiteness of one’s skin seems to switch from a desirable attribute only for women to one desirable for all. “Textur[ing] the flat surface of whiteness” as Sujata Iyengar describes it, also helps [195] students understand why the history of race in the Italian Renaissance is essential even for a mostly (or entirely) white classroom.[18]

In addition to the essays in this collection that offer ways into thinking about race through the Italian Renaissance painter Titian, through the novellas of Giambattista Basile, the poetry of Giambattista Marino and his French imitators, and through Florentine music history, what might be some ways to integrate the discourse on race into an existing syllabus? In a module on Dante, we can talk about the violence against Mohammed and Ali in the Inferno through Edward W. Said’s keen analysis in Orientalism, and also learn how Black American authors engaged with Dante through selections from Dennis Looney’s Freedom Readers.[19] Petrarch’s lyric can be read through the lens of “lyric whiteness,” with help from Hall’s work, as can any discussion of depictions of white women in Italian Renaissance art, from the Virgin Mary to Botticelli’s Judith and her maidservant. When we teach Ariosto and Tasso, we should make the connection to Columbus and the way in which he was used to bolster an imaginary Italian imperial legitimacy in the sixteenth century and compare that to how he was used to confirm the whiteness of Italian Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[20] Indeed, it is worth pausing here (and in the classroom) to consider Columbus, and the role his representation in early modern as well as contemporary culture might play in a class on the Renaissance. The way the Italian Renaissance has been filtered and weaponized in American history comes into particularly sharp relief when it comes to the Italian sailor, who was born in Genoa in 1451, just two years before the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. While he is often taught more as an avatar for Spanish imperialism than [196] Italian identity in the American high school classroom, this was not the case in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, nor has it been the case for the Italian American community over the course of the last century.[21] This knowledge adds depth and context to the conversations students hear on more left-leaning campuses every October over the urgency for a shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, and offers more information to students on campuses that celebrate the holiday unquestioningly. Columbus Day itself might be a product of nineteenth-century racialized anxieties in the US, but Columbus has long been fertile ground for aggrandizing Italy’s place in imperial history, from Tasso’s paean to him in Canto 16 of Gerusalemme liberata to lesser-known epics of the seventeenth century, in which Columbus is not only praised for his “discovery” of the New World, but was written into the story of the 1492 Fall of Granada, which ended Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula — an event for which he most certainly was not present.[22] His “heroism” is thus reinforced through violence against two racialized groups: an Italian “conquered” the indigenous people of the Americas and also fought against the “Moors” — and won.

The major epics of the period can provide a way to think through early modern Islamophobia at the height of Italian anxieties over the Ottoman Empire, as well as the intersection of early modern understandings of race vis-à-vis skin color. I think, for instance, of Bernardo Pulci’s Morgante (1483), whose title character, a Muslim giant, is not allowed to become a Christian knight because of his “reo destino” (wretched destiny) and [197] who does not survive his own poem.[23] Another example is Clorinda in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (1581), born, like her classical prototype Chariclea from Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, white to Black parents. Italian texts that do not make their way into the college classroom as much as they might (including Cinthio’s Il capitano moro and Basile’s Pentamerone, which Suzanne Magnanini addresses in her insightful essay in this collection) can be centralized in new ways. In a unit on early modern women, the role that elite women played in racist practices in early modern Italy can be explored through the letters of Isabella d’Este, which detail her aforementioned purchase of Black African slaves.[24]

These possibilities work not only to center race in the Italian Renaissance classroom, but also to question and destabilize the primacy of the Italian canon, which still tends to sit, unquestioned, at the center of most Italian literature classes. Ayanna Thompson advocates for studying and teaching Shakespeare through authors who have engaged with his plays from across the world, through different perspectives, and in different historical moments; Noémie Ndiaye argues for understanding how race works in his plays by considering the broader context of capitalism-driven racial formation in the Global Renaissance.[25] How might our students’ experiences be enriched by reading Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli — and our own understanding of the canon destabilized — by putting them into dialogue with other texts from other national traditions in the early modern world, but also with texts across time, by Salman Rushdie, by Toni Morrison, by Frantz Fanon? Our task should be to move toward teaching race in the Italian Renaissance in an intentional, antiracist way, one that allows students to think critically about the contemporary world as they learn about the past. [198]

Suggestions for Further Reading

Britton, Dennis Austin. “Contaminatio, Race, and Pity in Othello.” In Rethinking Shakespeare Source Study, edited by Dennis Austin Britton and Melissa Walter. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Elias, Karen, and Judith C. Jones. “Two Voices from the Front Lines: A Conversation about Race in the Classroom.” In Race in the College Classroom, edited by Bonnie TuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Hester, Nathalie. “Columbus Conquers the Moors.” In The New World in Early Modern Italy, 1492–1750, edited by Elizabeth Horodowich and Lia Markey, 270–87. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Kaplan, Paul. “Isabella d’Este and black African Women.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T.F. Earle and K.J.P Lowe, 125–54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ndiaye, Noémie. “Shakespeare, Race, and Globalization: Titus Andronicus.” In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, 158–174. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Staples, Brent. “How Italians Became ‘White’.” The New York Times, October 12, 2019.

Tylus, Jane. “Reasoning Away Colonialism: Tasso and the Production of the Gerusalemme liberate.South Central Review 10, no. 2 (1993): 100–114. [199]

Figure 1
Figure 1. Leonardo Da Vinci, L’uomo vitruviano (Vitruvian Man), c. 1490. Photo by Luc Viatour, in public domain.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Sandro Botticelli — La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) — c. 1485, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy. Google Art Project

  1. Jacob Burckhardt published what would become the ur-text of Renaissance Studies, his influential Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien in 1860, translated as The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1878. On the evolution on Italian Renaissance historiography from Burckhardt on, see especially Virginia Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, (I.B. Tauris, 2015); John Jeffries Martin, “The Renaissance: Between Myth and History,” in The Renaissance: Italy and Abroad, ed. John Jeffries Martin (Routledge, 2003), 1–24.
  2. Coles, Kimberly Anne, Kim F. Hall and Ayanna Thompson, “BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” MLA Profession, Fall 2019. https://profession.mla.org/blackkkshakespearean-a-call-to-action-for-medieval-and-early-modern-studies/.
  3. Paul Kaplan, “Isabella d’Este and black African women,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T.F. Earle and K.J.P Lowe (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 125–154, esp. 134.
  4. On the Venetian ghetto see Dana E. Katz, The Jewish Ghetto and the Visual Imagination of Early Modern Venice, (Cambridge University Press, 2017); on the Roman ghetto, Kenneth R. Stow, Theater of Acculturation: The Roman Ghetto in the Sixteenth Century, (University of Washington Press, 2015).
  5. Peter A. Mazur, Conversion to Catholicism in Early Modern Italy, (Routledge, 2019), 19.
  6. Nancy Bisaha, Europe (c. 1400–1458) (Catholic University of America Press, 2020), 30. On the continuation of this rhetoric in the Italian context, see Wainwright, Anna Wainwright, “A Simple Virgin Speaks: Authorial Identity and Perusasion in Isabella Cervoni’s Oration to Pope Clement VIII” The Italianist, 37, no. 1 (2017): 1–19.
  7. The scholar Deborah Parker has spoken to the lack of diversity amongst scholars of Italian Studies, and the importance of change in the field. See her June 2018 article in Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/06/21/paucity-asians-and-other-minorities-teaching-and-studying-italian-and-other-foreign.
  8. Cf. the editors’ introduction to the volume, especially footnote ix. On the importance of early modern critical race studies, see especially Margo Hendricks’ keynote at the Folger/Race B4 Race conference on Race and Periodization in September 2019, https://www.folger.edu/institute/scholarly-programs/race-periodization/margo-hendricks.
  9. Kim F. Hall, “‘These bastard signs of fair’: Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets” in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, edited by Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (Routledge, 2003), 65.
  10. Dennis Austin Britton, “Contaminatio, Race, and Pity in Othello” in Rethinking Shakespeare Source Study, edited by Dennis Austin Britton and Melissa Walter (Routledge, 2018), 46.
  11. One important push in early modern critical race studies is to push beyond Othello as Shakespeare’s “race play” par excellence. David Sterling Brown has recently argued for a broader consideration of race in Shakespeare, especially around whiteness, and has coin the term “The Other Race Plays.” David Sterling Brown, “White Hands: Gesturing Toward Shakespeare’s Other ‘Race Plays,’” Shakespeare Association of America 2019 Plenary, “Looking Forward: New Directions in Early Modern Race Studies.” 
  12. Brunsma, Brown and Placier argue that “white students enter historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) surrounded by invisible walls that protect them from attacks on white supremacy,” and that these protective walls are generally reinforced through their education. David L. Brunsma, Eric S. Brown, and Peggy Placier, “Teaching Race at Historically White Colleges and Universities: Identifying and Dismantling the Walls of Whiteness,” Critical Sociology, 39, no. 5 (2012): 717–38. These “walls of whiteness” are becoming ever more visible, however, as state legislatures across the United States pass laws banning discussions of racism and white supremacy in the classroom, as we discuss in the introduction to this volume.
  13. On the debate in Classics see especially Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “Espistemide: the Roman Case,” in Classica: Revista Brasiliera de Estudos Classicos, 33, no. 2 (2020): 151–86, and Patrice D. Rankine, “The Classics, Race, and Community-Engaged or Public Scholarship” in American Journal of Philology, 140, no. 2 (2019); on medievalism see the debate over the term “Anglo-Saxon” and its role in white supremacist discourse, especially Mary Rambaran-Olm, “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies,” November 4, 2019, https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/misnaming-the-medieval-rejecting-anglo-saxon-studies/.
  14. I would suggest especially Ambereen Dadabhoy’s piece on Othello and the present-day War on Terror; Roya Biggie’s essay on mapmaking with students; and Amrita Dhar’s discussion of the intersection of race and disability; and Anna Klosowska’s chapter on French imitations of Marino’s La bella schiava.
  15. On this, see Karen Elias and Judith C. Jones, “Two Voices from the Front Lines: A Conversation about Race in the Classroom,” in Race in the College Classroom, edited by Bonnie TuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy (Rutgers University Press, 2002), 8.
  16. For a comprehensive list of early modern critical race scholarship, see editors’ introduction to this volume, footnote ix.  
  17. Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 3.
  18. Sujata Iyengar, “Strangeness: Early Modern European Women and the Invention of Whiteness” in Early Modern Literary Studies, 2020, 2.
  19. Said memorably points out that the Orientalizing impulse, which we think of as predominantly a phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, began much earlier, and points to Dante as an early perpetrator. Edward Said, Orientalism (Vintage, 1978), 68.
  20. On Columbus in Tasso, see especially Jane Tylus, “Reasoning Away Colonialism: Tasso and the Production of the Gerusalemme liberataSouth Central Review 10, no. 2 (1993): 100–114.
  21. As has been much discussed in the last few years, the myth of Columbus as the Italian “founding father” of America emerged in the late nineteenth century, and helped to recast Italian Americans, who faced discrimination and violence across the United States, into white Americans. Brent Staples and others have compellingly argued that the lionization of Columbus over the last century and a half has served not only to make Italian Americans white, but to reinforce antiblack racism. See especially Brent Staples, “How Italians Became ‘White,’ The New York Times, October 12, 2019.
  22. Nathalie Hester, “Columbus Conquers the Moors” in The New World in Early Modern Italy, eds. Elizabeth Horodowich and Lia Markey (Cambridge, 2017), 270–87.
  23. See Anna Wainwright, “Tied Up in Chains of Adamant”: Recovering Race in Tasso’s ArmidaBefore, and After, Acrasia,” Spenser Studies 35, (2021): 181–211.
  24. Isabella d’Este: Selected Letters, edited and translated by Deanna Shemek (ACMRS, 2017).
  25. Ayanna Thompson, Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (Oxford University Press, 2011); Noémie Ndiaye, “Shakespeare, Race, and Globalization: Titus Andronicus,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 158–174.

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