The Black Female Attendant in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (c. 1559), and in Modern Oblivion

Patricia Simons

[print edition page number: 223]
I begin with a confession. For many years, I found it difficult, even embarrassing, to teach about one aspect of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon canvas produced in the 1550s (see figures 1 and 2). The Black figure in the retinue of the goddess Diana, on the right, was often passed over by scholars, or relegated to an allegorical function such as Fortuna or Natura, but that did not encompass its crucial effect, dramatic presence, or historical context. Whether there were Black students in the classroom or not, the figure needed to be seen and explained. This essay hopes to offer a way forward, trying to empower students, offering a degree of hope, and fitting them with tools of visual literacy as well as verbal skill. Racism is not timeless, and naming it can lessen its effectiveness. The history of power can reveal fissures in the edifices of control, and it is important to understand that ancestors from various minorities were sometimes victors in their quiet struggles.


Painting of a man walking up to six bathing women. The women on the far right is bathing with the help of a Black woman.
Figure 1. Titian. Diana and Actaeon. 1556–1559. Oil on canvas. 184.5 x 202.2 cm. National Gallery, London and Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
Close up of a white woman bathing with the help of a Black woman.
Figure 2. Detail of Figure 1.

The visual archive is not a collection of straightforward or transparent records about the existence of and attitudes toward a variety of ethnic and racial types in premodern Europe. Like texts, images must be situated in their time and place, and treated with nuance and respect as sophisticated, complex and sometimes contradictory materials. Artistic observation was always balanced with imagination, fascination co-existed with fear, and the production and reception of art was filtered through intellectual conventions and power differentials as well as aesthetic traditions, material practices, and cultural expectations. Similarly, today’s modes of interpretation are multiple, overlapping, and changing. Art historians increasingly study the visual representation of Black figures “not only as [224] an iconographic subfield or as an enterprise of recuperation, but rather as part of broader discursive constructions of race.”[1]

In the Italian peninsula during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such discourses were shaped by factors like increasing travel and pilgrimage, growing trade activity, contact and conflict with non-Christian peoples (including inhabitants of the Ottoman empire, primarily Turks and Egyptians), local labor conditions as well as the international slave trade, religious shifts and challenges both near and far, and the rise of imperialism, especially by the Hapsburgs. It was to a key member of that dynasty, [225] King Philip II of Spain, that the Venetian painter Titian sent the canvas of Diana and Actaeon in 1559.[2] Moving beyond simply noticing this figure, this study treats not merely the matter of Black visibility, but of what kind, and in what context. The goal is to identify ways in which modern commentaries have marginalized or removed the figure, instead arguing for [226] its importance, and for the possibility that the character is endowed with a degree of agency.

Historical Context: Black Africans in the Mediterranean

In the sixteenth century, Black Africans were chiefly known in the Mediterranean area as slaves but they were not the major element of the slave trade until it waned in Europe and developed across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, European Christians purchased slaves from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Muslim lands; this ethnically diverse populace of slaves comprised Armenians, Mongols, Slavs, Tartars, Turks, Russians, and more. In 1483 the Swiss pilgrim Felix Fabri saw for sale at Cairo’s slave market “many people, youths and children of both sexes, black and white (nigri et albi), female and male,” though in another market with only blacks (“Ethiopians,” then a standard term for Black Africans), Muslim slave traders would not sell to the Christians.[3] Slaves “did not form a clearly distinctive or definable group,” and there were considerable differences not only in geographical origin and religious faith but also in practices, sources, types of trade, and legal regulations.[4]

Venice was one of the major cities involved in the slave trade, acting as a port of acquisition, transfer, and export. Around 1480, the visitor Fabri was struck by the abundance of non-European faces in the streets and canals of the metropolis, estimating that there were around 3,000 enslaved “Ethiopians and Tartars.”[5] Black gondoliers and boatmen were common enough in the 1490s for Vittore Carpaccio to depict them in two of his paintings, cleverly constructing the appearance of realistic detail [227] (see figure 3).[6] It has been estimated that over four hundred Venetian images produced before 1800 show one or more African figures.[7]


Painting showing a Black man pushing a gondola while a white man sits inside.
Figure 3. Vittore Carpaccio. Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge: detail. 1494–1501. Tempera on canvas. 365 x 389 cm. Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

On the other hand, Black Africans were a “very small minority” of slaves in any part of northern Italy, and they were less in demand than lighter-skinned [228] people.[8] There was also a noticeable decline in slavery by the late decades of the fifteenth century, in large part due to less access to Muslim lands, and slaves grew expensive. Of any origin, slaves became an “unusual extravagance,” serving mostly in aristocratic circles as markers of European privilege.[9] Art skewed the representation of sub-Saharan Africans because most images present Black males, in outdoor settings, whereas the overwhelming majority of slaves were female, employed in household work (often entailing wet nursing, and sexual service to the master).[10]

Venice was also populated with freed former slaves, who, if they were Black men, usually worked in labor-intensive occupations like gondolier or marble-carver, whereas freedwoman tended to marry or continue as servants.[11] In 1386 the will of the Venetian painter Nicoletto Semitecolo stipulated that his Tartar slave would be freed after remaining with his widow for six years, during which time the slave was to continue to exercise the art of painting.[12] It is crucial not to mistake every picture of a non-European for a slave. There is no evidence that Titian’s figure is meant to evoke slavery, though his actual model may have still been unfree.

In any case, the adorned woman who is the focus of this essay does not directly or simply record social reality. Like Carpaccio’s gondolier clad in flamboyant dress, she is designed to catch the eye, add variety to the scene, draw cosmopolitan allusions, and demonstrate innovative, artistic skill. Yet, as with Carpaccio’s figures, the female attendant is often mentioned [229] simply as an example of the presence of Africans in Venice. Scholars might highlight her exoticism, along with the common description of the figure as an aesthetic “foil” to accentuate Diana’s white purity. Or she is reduced to an allegorical symbol, with no social meaning. This essay tries to offer a more nuanced reading, between the polarities of reality and metaphor, document and allegory, naturalism and fantasy.

The Myth and Meaning of Ovid’s Diana and Actaeon

The retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon by the first-century Roman poet Ovid was well known during the Renaissance: the young hunter unwittingly came upon Diana and her nymphs bathing in a secluded grotto.[13] Angry at the intrusion into her private sanctuary, the goddess punished Actaeon by turning him into a stag, so that his dogs set upon him, a brutal death that Titian showed on another canvas. Common allegorical readings of the tale regarded Actaeon as overly curious about mysteries beyond human ken, or as a man unable to control his passions. Being the goddess of chastity, Diana’s vengeful punishment of him was interpreted as the right, if cruel, feminine response to improper, irrational, and passionate behavior.[14]

Titian focused on the first moments of the youth’s interjection, when the women begin to react. The artist makes the issue of who sees what the crux of the painting, by taking on Diana’s challenge to Actaeon, voiced as she begins the hunter’s metamorphosis: “Now you are free to tell that you have seen me all unrobed — if you can tell”.[15] Of course, the stag never can speak, and thus female chastity and divine secrecy remain sacrosanct. Depicting the initial stage rather than the event of bestial transformation, Titian adds suspense and not only sees the goddess naked, but lives to tell the tale. Thereby, he asserts his privileged access to visions of the divine as well as to knowledge of the naked female body, and he provides his [230] audience with the same license. In normative terms, Actaeon’s shock and Diana’s anger remind viewers of the social values of masculine control and feminine chastity, core components of the honor of each gender. Simultaneously, Titian presents the enticing view of idealized female nakedness that is no longer held secret but seen by all.

Titian dramatizes the inter-related issues of sight and veiling. Between and beyond the narrative poles of Diana and Actaeon, six young women perform assorted actions and gazes. Closest to Actaeon, one nymph casts an anxious look toward her mistress while pulling at the red curtain for protection. Another looks down, concentrating on her task of drying her mistress’s leg and thus missing the crisis entirely. In the central cluster, a blonde nymph lowers her eyes and starts to turn away. Behind her another woman has turned her back and is covering herself, while a third nymph hides behind a pillar yet peeks out, trying to understand what is happening. Playing the crucial role of closing the composition on the far right and returning the viewer’s eyes to the action, a young Black woman opens her mouth in surprise and helps Diana cover herself.

Visibility/Invisibility: The Black Woman in Titian’s Painting

The drama begins with Actaeon, and ends with the nameless Black figure who also raises her arm in alarm. Paid little or no attention by modern commentators, as we will see, the figure is exceptional yet essential. Ovid imagined that Diana’s nymphs crowded around to shield her, but in the painting they have not had time to do so, thus enabling Titian to bare the bodies of all but one of the female characters. Diana has to fend for herself, except for the companion behind her, the clothed attendant who reinforces her gesture of lifting a veil. The goddess’s rising anger (her face flushed with the blush of modesty that is blossoming into the heat of anger) and vehement defense of chastity is aided and accentuated only by the escort. They act in tandem.

The Black figure’s features are individualized enough to suggest that Titian observed a particular model and he produced an attractive, animated face. Only beautiful, ever-youthful maidens could surround a goddess in her idyllic habitat. However, unlike the nymphs, who are semi-divine beauties populating remote locales, the Black woman is thinner, [231] muscular, partly clothed and sumptuously adorned, thereby adding a unique note of contemporary relevance to the ancient yet supposedly timeless fable. Given the conventions of the day, carried over into modern assumptions about racial superiority, nymphs can only be pale-skinned and they are usually fair-haired or blonde.

This figure is more than an ordinary servant, and there are no indications that she was to be understood as a slave. Just the opposite. Venetian regulations that were expanded in 1541 forbade servants from wearing certain items of silk or velvet, and their common fabrics were white, black, or drab browns.[16] Nor were they allowed to wear anything regarded as inadequately respectable (non honesto), rules flaunted by Titian’s arresting garb with multi-colored stripes, to say nothing of the bared shoulder.

Stripes at times connoted foreign, transgressive, or evil creatures.[17] But similarly striking attire was also depicted on servants and aristocrats. Young pages (one of whom is Black) and a woman in the elite entourage of the Pharaoh’s daughter exhibit striped clothing in Bonifazio de Pitati’s Finding of Moses (c. 1540–1545, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). A long shawl of white, pink, and gold stripes, akin to the cloth in Titian’s painting, is worn by a brown-skinned female servant standing behind the princess in the fanciful Egyptian setting of Carpaccio’s St George Baptizing the Selenites (c. 1505–1507, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice).

Jewelry also distinguishes Titian’s character: a sizeable pearl ornaments her armband, a large ruby hangs from her gold earring, and her hair is adorned with blue daubs (perhaps anemones or feathers, but probably ribbons). Aristocratic women wore earrings, though pierced ears supporting pendant earrings had something of the exotic and foreign about them. They were even disparaged by one Venetian gentleman in 1525 as “the Moorish mode.”[18] At a lower level of society, Black women were renowned [232] for wearing many trinkets or charms.[19] Aspects of Titian’s embellishments thus evoke and enhance her foreignness, but they are neither trashy baubles nor records of reality. They signify her eminence, bejeweled as she is almost as much as Diana. Her setting is not household, brothel, or plantation, but the fantastical world of courtly life and ancient legend. She exists in the close company of a goddess, and is one of the most honored members of the innermost circle. The figure is not present in the painting as a representative of all of exoticized Africa.

Nor is she a mere appendage to the goddess. Decades earlier, Titian devised the first portrait of a white woman accompanied by a Black servant, establishing a type that became popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when intercontinental imperialism and slavery flourished.[20] The pre-pubescent page in Titian’s portrait of Laura Dianti (see figure 4) has been described as an objectified “luxury item,” and a Black person working at any court was apparently only “a curious ornament or a diverting toy.”[21] But just as not all Black people can be cast into a single mold, images of them cannot be left undifferentiated. Laura’s servant is a child looking up to focus only on her, and the same gaze, along with the disparity in age, size, status and race, recurs in Titian’s later portrait of Fabricius Salvaresius (1558, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).[22] [233] Diana’s aide is not infantilized or passive, and it is she who looks most directly at the intruder. [234]


Painting of a white woman and a Black boy. Both woman and child are dressed in elaborate fine clothing.
Figure 4. Titian. Laura Dianti and a black page. c. 1524–1529. Oil on canvas. H. Kisters Collection, Kreuzlingen.

Images of Black women, rather than men or children, were not common in Italian painting. Medieval images of the Queen of Sheba and her retinue occasionally showed them as Black, but that tradition did not continue in the Renaissance. African and dark-skinned women appear in a handful of Italian paintings and drawings from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as a turbaned figure among court ladies in the case of Mantegna’s oculus in the Camera Picta of Mantua (c. 1465–1474), for instance, or aiding the Old Testament hero Judith, and caring for an infant in Lorenzo Lotto’s St Lucy altarpiece (c. 1532).[23] The salacious stereotype of Black women informs Sodoma’s Marriage of Alexander and Roxana (c. 1519, Villa Farnesina, Rome). The celebratory, sexual tone of epithalamia (nuptial poetry) is emphasized by a grinning Black woman who eagerly watches the groom approach the bridal chamber, her hands grasping the bed’s red curtains so that the cloth between her hands forms the shape of a vulva.

Titian’s figure in Diana and Actaeon fiercely aids in the defense of chastity, which meant consistent loyalty to the marital oath rather than virginity per se. She is situated in a visual context that does not pretend to be a vignette of everyday life. Rather, she appears in an istoria, a narrative considered especially noteworthy, and in a large canvas intended for a powerful king. Interpreting her as a mere appendage to Diana implies that she signifies no more than slavery and servitude. Attendant she may be, but she is bedecked, energetic, and engaged with the story and its central point about chastity.

While stereotypes were rampant, in practice Black women, like other servants and slaves, were expected to defend the honor of the household [235] they served and to uphold its respectability.[24] However much they were or were not complicit with such patriarchal standards for others, most were certainly keen to guard their own honor, though despair, covert rebellion and personal assertion led to cases of drunkenness, illicit sexual activity, suicide, or murder. Records about the emotional lives of slaves and servants in premodern Europe are sporadic, mainly surviving in legal records, but in that restricted context there are glimpses of women who are proud to have been long-term concubines of their European master, or who use the word “companion” to describe their role. With pride and determination, some managed to mount court cases seeking freedom for themselves and their children or successfully accused masters of beating them. Under the prejudicial legal system and caught up in the stereotype that all Africans were lustful, there was little point trying to bring a charge of rape but some informally named the fathers of their offspring, implicating European owners and their friends. Complaints by masters about the disobedience, insolence, laziness, or pride of slaves point to a strong undercurrent of resistance and subversion. Titian’s figure can be regarded as fighting for her own honor and reputation as well as for that of her goddess. Already clothed, she moves with alacrity to cover the personification of chastity.

The treatment of servants and slaves in Renaissance Italy varied widely, from beating and near-starvation to decent care and generous bequests. Not all bonds were antagonistic, despite the long-term influence of the phrase “domestic enemy” used in the ground-breaking article on Italian slavery published by historian Iris Origo in 1955.[25] She mentioned the fourteenth-century humanist Petrarch, whose statement — “we have as many enemies as we have slaves” — was actually about servants (he owned no slaves). Furthermore, he repeated an ancient saying from Seneca rather [236] than inventing a new, emotional or personal one.[26] Sixteenth-century authors repeated the proverb “we have as many enemies in our house as we have slaves.” Writing in Sicily — where the proportion of slaves was as high as four or five percent — Paolo Caggio, the author of Iconomica (1552), referred to it, but in the context of ruptures between levels of privilege and power, not slaves per se.[27] In 1575, Stefano Guazzo’s conduct manual repeated it in his comments about servants, further echoing Seneca in saying that such enemies were made not born.[28] Historian Kate Lowe concludes that in Renaissance Italy, “slave status more often than skin color” was what mattered and “color was not considered a deep characteristic of a person.”[29]

Working for rich patrons who were fellow European Christians, Titian was a man of his time who could not conceive of advocating for those of low status or different race. His painting assumes that chastity is a universal value, but it is not a conscious manifesto for the inclusion of all races under that banner. The superiority of himself, his viewers (primarily male and white), and the mythological divinity are assumed. The picture asserts patriarchal, hierarchical, and European values, but it is not without sympathy for the performers of the narrative. [237]

Goddess and assistant act in unison, bodies slightly overlapping and curving in similar arcs, arms raised to one purpose. Diana’s eyes are lowered in modesty, but her companion looks across at Actaeon in disbelief and alarm. The represented alliance follows the social ideal. Slaves were to be treated with moderation according to the Bible, like a brother, and “as of thy own self,” advice Guazzo reiterated.[30] Perfect, loyal servants were like a second self. That is not to say that servants were equals. There is a clear differential in Titian’s pairing, for the goddess is obviously above everyone else in monumental size, status, fury, and pictorial focus. Yet the Black figure is a core player in the goddess’s sanctuary, much more important than the white nymph obliviously attending to her mistress. Her purpose is not primarily as a subjugated attribute of Diana, however; rather, Titian places her there to accentuate certain visual and narrative distinctions.

Her significance is clear if we imagine the figure not there at all. In narrative terms, emphasis is added to the crucial act of noticing and the chaste act of covering, which thus also further underscore the expanse of alluring nakedness. Compositionally, she folds the action back into the dynamics of the picture; otherwise the edge is vacuous and Diana isolated, with literally no one having her back. These effects would, however, work almost as well with a pale figure in the same pose. Importantly, x-rays show that Titian did initially plan a white nymph in that position, though reaching her left arm around to cover Diana’s genitals.[31] Some scholars believe the alteration was made so that Diana was not swamped by too high a tone in that area of the composition, and thus that the nymph was replaced by “the less conspicuous dark attendant.”[32] [238]

While this may be somewhat true in terms of tone and light, the final effect hardly relies on an unobtrusive figure to close the composition. Titian took pains with the altered flesh, using layers of “lead white, yellow earth, black, umber, lead-tin yellow and even a little blue pigment” to build up “the sheen of black skin,” whereas Laura’s page was rendered in a less variegated brown and Salvaresius’s page, close in date to the Diana canvas, also has less subtly executed, though darker, skin.[33] Moreover, the skillfully shaded flesh is supplemented by numerous exciting touches of color: sapphire daubs in the hair, ruby and gold at the ear, glistening pearl on the arm, and the eye-catching multi-colored fabric of stripes. I agree that the chief impetus for the alterations was likely to be Titian’s unexpected access to an actual model.[34] Individualization of the face, as well as careful attention to capturing the nuances of dark skin suggest that the artist was inspired by the challenges of first-hand sight. The changes enhanced the narrative and compositional import of the figure, and the painting became more intriguing, emphatic, and varied after one bland, pale nymph was eradicated.

Modern Oblivion[35]

Yet the figure is “less conspicuous” in modern commentary, to the point of invisibility in some cases. Who sees what, and how, and when, remain important issues. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, various copies and oil sketches of the canvas were produced, and the African woman always appeared.[36] Perhaps the rise in race theory during [239] the eighteenth century fostered subsequent erasures, neglect, denigration, or dismissal of Titian’s Black figure. Examining the language and tactics used by museums and scholars in the past helps us learn how to speak and see in more insightful ways.

In the worst cases, the figure is ignored entirely. A five-minute video about the painting produced by the National Gallery, London, in 2008 did not mention her, though it found time to refer to the fine glass that was shipped to Spain at the same time as the canvas.[37] At least she has not been painted out or had the pigment scraped off and re-painted, as has happened in the case of some portraits of sitters of mixed race.[38] But little attempt was made to remember her in the photographed tableaux-vivant staged in November 2008 by Tom Hunter as part of the campaign to raise money so that the painting could be purchased for a British public collection.[39]


Artwork showing a man walking up to six women bathing. Magazine clippings and pictures are visible on the floor and a Madonna poster hangs off of a clothes line.
Figure 5. Calum Colvin. Diana and Actaeon (after Titian). 1998. Collection: the artist.

Calum Colvin’s 1998 interpretation of the painting is more thoughtful (see figure 5), wryly updating the scenario by situating it in a living room crowded with such domestic objects as an ironing board and washing hanging on the line. Every figure is present, except for the Black woman, who is replaced by an upright vacuum cleaner displaying the brand name “Hot Point” on its lower, black section. Nearby, a large pair of black binoculars [240] rests atop red fabric tossed on the floor, a reference to the story’s themes of sight and voyeurism. Far removed from Renaissance investment in the authority of the classical world and its stories, Colvin presents a “Scottish ‘working class domestic’ version of the myth, where Diana is reduced herself to a kind of domestic servitude.”[40] Regarded as a lowly servant, Titian’s African figure is replaced by black objects that point ironically to sexual stereotypes about “hotness.” On the one hand, the Black woman is expunged, but on the other hand thereby no Black person is objectified or pictured in a servile role.

Without any such sense of irony or critique, however, one art critic crassly suggested in 2008 that Titian’s work is “in all likelihood a brothel scene cloaked in myth” and that the presence of the Black woman tends [241] to confirm that claim.[41] The derogatory proposition ignores differences between prostitutes and courtesans and between sensuality and pornography, flouts the story’s import about chastity, and conflates models with narrative figures. Above all, it perpetuates the insulting, uninformed, and long-standing stereotype about Africans being sexually promiscuous, a stereotype already evident in the Renaissance.[42] While it is true that some slaves and former slaves, from any geographical region, were prostitutes or servants of sexual workers, it was not a predominant pattern.[43]

Most commonly, the Black woman is mentioned in passing, deemed inconsequential and no more than a “black maidservant.” Thus the figure is usually identified as a possession or accoutrement of Diana, but nothing further is said, so she becomes invisible as a subject. Sometimes there is the hint of dismissal. In 1968, one author referred to Diana as a “woman” and all the nymphs as “girls,” but noted “the little negro girl’s face.”[44] In 1985, she was consistently and only “the Negress,” without an occupation.[45]

Rather, the latter author associated the figure with the allegorical aspect of Diana as Natura, thereby once more subsuming it under the role of secondary attribute. Allegorical readings of the figure cloak it in intellectual obscurity, evacuating from it any social, political, or artistic significance beyond symbolism. No attention is paid to features like costuming, pictorial handling, or facial expression, much less the context of chastity or the dynamics of sight. All that matters in such elaborate moves is the [242] figure’s blackness, which enables interpretations of the figure as Night or as an associate of Natura or Fortuna.[46]

Contrapposto and Complementarity

Another, subtle mode of marginalization has been the frequent observation that the Black woman is an aesthetic “foil” to the adjacent white figure. Thus, to cite just one example, “the dusky Negro girl … provides a telling foil to the fair-skinned goddess.”[47] The comment is considered a sufficient and sole explanation for her presence and visual effect. In a preliminary, cursory sense this is true enough, but it makes the Black figure dependent on and secondary to Diana, and leaves everything else about her insignificant. To be sure, the goddess is the leading character, but the Black attendant is more important than any of the pallid nymphs.

Certainly, ideal feminine beauty was described as white (akin to milk, snow, ivory, and alabaster) tinged with red (likened to blood and rose).[48] Yet treatises on the matter did not explicitly contrast this ideal with any other pigmentation, and the concept works equally well if the companion would be, say, olive-skinned, or distinctively different in any other way. Around 1590–1600, the minor French nobleman Pierre Brantôme remarked: “an excellent painter … having executed the portrait of a very beautiful and pleasant-looking lady, places next to her an old hag, a Moorish [243] slave or a hideous dwarf, so that their ugliness and blackness may give greater lustre and brilliance to her great beauty and fairness.”[49]

However, the fundamental principle of contrapposto meant that a fair lady’s beauty was enhanced when she wore a black dress, and not because the clothing was considered ugly.[50] Brantome simplified aesthetic theory, which ultimately deployed contrapposto as a mode, not of outright opposition, but of concord that arose from comparison and dialectical subtlety where each element enhances the other.[51] Harmony and diversity or varietà were the desired results, rather than binary contrast. In the 1430s, Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on painting picked up on ancient praise of the famous painter Apelles, recommending that the women in Diana’s troop wear a range of colored garments, some light, some dark, leading to a pleasing, graceful whole.[52] Writing just a few years before the Diana and Actaeon was finished, Titian’s friend Ludovico Dolce noted that painters had to find a mean between the extremes of light and dark, which “unites one contrary with the other.”[53] Juxtapositions, of light and dark, young and old, near and far, and so on, were commonly applauded due to their mutual enhancement, and such charming variety extended beyond pairs alone, entailing also multiple types, postures, and colors.

Furthermore, many understood that perception and beauty were relative and that, in the words of the inscription on an Italian cameo made in the second half of the sixteenth century featuring the profile of an African man, [244] “Varying like this, Nature is beautiful.”[54] While the color black might have symbolized evil in some circumstances, in other contexts, including allegory and poetry, black was beautiful, a tradition going back to the Old Testament and Greek poetry.[55] Saying no more than that Titian presents a “foil” to Diana misses the subtlety of contrapposto and implies that the difference in skin color is the chief or only factor. It also infers that white beauty is always primary and that blackness is ugly, recessive, and dependent. But Titian offers many charming, concordant variations in the canvas, including fully naked, partly veiled, and partly clothed in the case of the Black attendant. As with Titian’s representations of Black pages, there is a clear power differential in the Diana and Actaeon scene because the chief protagonist is an eternal goddess whereas the Black attendant, in clothing, ornamentation, and skin color is a person of the artist’s time. But she is not infantilized, and her action and values are in concert with those of the deity.

Her proximity to Diana may indeed have symbolic meaning, though it is conveyed in more nuanced ways than solely by skin color. Diana is crowned with her sign of the crescent moon and allegorical interpretations of the painting claim that the Black attendant, because of her pigmentation, represents various aspects of the goddess in her dark and nighttime manifestations.[56] I would argue that we see co-ordination and affirmation in the pair. Slipping far off her shoulders, the attendant’s upper dress forms a lunar arc, and the sweeping gesture of her two arms enfolds the goddess in a similar celestial curve. Her shimmering cloth with [245] golden and white highlights is contrary to nighttime. In terms of contrapposto, her skin color adds variety and balance. Visible, colorful, active, and meaningful, the Black figure is a crucial player in Titian’s drama.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the presence of the Black figure in Titian’s painting change the narrative of the myth of Diana and Actaeon?
  2. Can you think of some examples in contemporary popular culture in which secondary characters are racialized in ways that seem extraneous or unquestioned?
  3. How does this reading change your idea of Renaissance Venice and Italy?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Epstein, Steven. “Slaves in Italy, 1350–1550.” In At the Margins: Minority Groups in Premodern Italy, edited by Stephen Milner, 219–235. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Kaplan, Paul H. D. “Local Color: The Black African Presence in Venetian Art and History.” In Fred Wilson: Speak of Me as I Am, 8–19. Cambridge, MA: List Visual Arts Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

Lowe, Kate. “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly 66, (2013): 412–52.

McGrath, Elizabeth. “Lotto’s Lucy, her name and her black companion.” In Mantova e il Rinascimento italiano. Studi in onore di David S. Chambers, edited by Philippa Jackson and Guido Rebecchini, 191–211. Mantua: Editoriale Sometti, 2011.

  1. Angela Rosenthal and Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, “Envisioning Slave Portraiture,” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, ed. Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 12.
  2. Harold Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, vol. III (London: Phaidon, 1975), 73–74, 138–41.
  3. Felicis Fabri, Evagatorium, edited by Konrad Dietrich Hassler (Stuttgart: Sumtibus Societatis Litterariae, 1849), vol. IV, 36–37.
  4. Juliane Schiel and Stefan Hanß, “Semantics, Practices and Transcultural Perspectives on Mediterranean Slavery,” in Mediterranean Slavery Revisited (500–1800), edited by Stefan Hanß and Juliane Schiel (Zurich: Chronos, 2014), 16.
  5. Fabri, Evagatorium, 432. In 1509 the city’s population was between 103,500 and 115,000: Kate Lowe, “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice,” Renaissance Quarterly 66, (2013): 428. Assuming around 100,000 for the population nearly thirty years earlier, Fabri thus posits a slave population of around three percent, whereas scholars suggest a proportion closer to one or two percent.
  6. Lowe, “Visible Lives,” 412–52. The other example is Hunting on the Lagoon (c. 1490–1494, Getty Museum, Los Angeles).
  7. Paul H. D. Kaplan, “Local Color: The Black African Presence in Venetian Art and History,” in Fred Wilson: Speak of Me as I Am (Cambridge MA: List Visual Arts Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), 8.
  8. Sally McKee, “Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy,” Slavery & Abolition 29 (2008): 311–12.
  9. The quotation is from McKee, “Domestic Slavery,” 321.
  10. Steven Epstein, “Slaves in Italy, 1350–1550,” in At the Margins: Minority Groups in Premodern Italy, edited by Stephen Milner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 223, 224, 227; McKee, “Domestic Slavery,” esp. 317–18, 320.
  11. Lowe, “Visible Lives,” 421–23, 446, and passim.
  12. Vincenzo Lazari, “Del traffico e delle condizioni degli schiavi in Venezia nei tempi di mezzo,” Miscellanea di storia italiana 1 (1862): 473. Two notarial documents in Genoa record slaves becoming pupils of artists, in February 1489 and January 1578: Luigi Tria, “La schiavitú in Liguria,” Atti della Societá Ligure di Storia Patria 70 (1947): 108. For other examples see Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, edited by Joaneath Spicer (Baltimore: The Walters Art Museum, 2012), 83–84.
  13. Metamorphoses, 3:138–193.
  14. H. David Brumble, Classical Myths and Legends in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A Dictionary of Allegorical Meanings (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 5–6, 98–100.
  15. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3:192–193.
  16. Dennis Romano, Housecraft and Statecraft. Domestic Service in Renaissance Venice, 1400–1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 28–32, 56, 247.
  17. Michel Pastoureau, The Devil’s Cloth. A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, translated by Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
  18. Marino Sanuto, I Diarii, edited by Rinaldo Fulin et al., (Venice: Visentini, 1894), vol 40, col. 425 (6 December 1525, “costume di more”).
  19. Francisco Delicado, La Lozana Andaluza (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1988), 83 (1.7): “lleva más dixes que una negra.” The novel was written and published in Venice in 1528 but set in Rome.
  20. Paul H. D. Kaplan, “Titian’s ‘Laura Dianti’ and the origins of the motif of the black page in portraiture,” Antichità viva 21 no 1 (1982): 11–18, and 21 no 4 (1982): 10–18; Jane Fair Bestor, “Titian’s Portrait of Laura Eustochia: The Decorum of Female Beauty and the Motif of the Black Page,” Renaissance Studies 17, (2003): 628–73; Joanna Woods-Marsden, “The Mistress as ‘Virtuous’: Titian’s Portrait of Laura Dianti,” in Titian: Materiality, Likeness, Istoria, edited by J. Woods-Marsden (Turnhout, 2007), 53–69.
  21. Bestor, “Laura Eustochia,” 633; Iris Origo, “The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” Speculum 30, (1955): 354.
  22. Paul H. D. Kaplan, “Sicily, Venice, and the East: Titian’s Fabricius Salvaresius with a Black Page,” in Europa und die Kunst des Islam, 15. bis 18 Jahrhundert (Vienna: Bohlaus, 1985), 127–36.
  23. The early case of Mantegna’s fresco was discussed by Maria Maura in a paper delivered at the Feminist Art History Conference on 30 September 2018, “Beyond the Reality Effect: The African Woman in Mantegna’s Oculus.” For others see Paul H. D. 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: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 125–54; Elizabeth McGrath, “Lotto’s Lucy, her name and her black companion,” in Mantova e il Rinascimento italiano. Studi in onore di David S. Chambers, edited by Philippa Jackson and Guido Rebecchini (Mantua: Editoriale Sometti, 2011), 191–11.
  24. The following is largely drawn from Romano, Housecraft and Statecraft, 52–53, 171, 193–222; Steven Epstein, Speaking of Slavery. Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 114–17, 124–32; Debra Blumenthal, Enemies and Familiars: Slavery and Mastery in Fifteenth-Century Valencia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), 46–47, 64–65, 68–76, 154–93.
  25. Origo, “Domestic Enemy,” 332 (“domestici hostes,” mentioning Petrarch but with no endnote).
  26. Seneca, Epistulae Morales, 47.5 (“totidem hostes esse quot servos,” “as many enemies as you have slaves”); Petrarch, Familiarium rerum libri, 4.14.1 (“familiarium hostium”) and 10.3.31 (quoting Seneca); Conrad Rawski, Petrarch’s ‘Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), vol. 3, 84–85 2.29, (citing Seneca); Rawski, Petrarch’s ‘Remedies, vol. 4, 137–41 (including the Latin and an English translation of Familiarium 4.14); Epstein, Speaking of Slavery, 43–44. Perhaps Origo had in mind Cicero, In Catilinam 3.28 (“domestici hostes”), but the phrase referred to a political enemy in the Roman senate.
  27. Paolo Caggio, Iconomica (Venice: al segno del Pozzo, 1552), 41r; Origo, “Domestic Enemy,” 322.
  28. Stefano Guazzo, La civil conversatione (Venice: appresso Bartolomeo Robino, 1575), 440, 454; Romano, Housecraft and Statecraft, 20.
  29. Kate Lowe, “Isabella d’Este and the Acquisition of Black Africans at the Mantuan Court,” in Mantova e il Rinascimento italiano. Studi in onore di David S. Chambers, edited by Philippa Jackson and Guido Rebecchini (Mantua: Editoriale Sometti, 2011), 71; Epstein, Speaking of Slavery, 108.
  30. Ecclesiasticus 33:31 (“quasi anima tua”); Guazzo, Civil conversatione, 454–45, 461–62 (“quasi l’anima tua”); Romano, Housecraft and Statecraft, 20.
  31. S. Kennedy North, “The Bridgewater Titians,” Burlington Magazine 62 (1933): 15; Lars Skarsgård, Research and Reasoning: A Case Study on an Historical Inquiry: “Titian’s Diana and Actaeon: A Study in Artistic Innovation” (Göteborg: Akademiförlaget, 1968), 55–59, 73–82; Jill Dunkerton et al., “Catalogue,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 36 (2016): 64–75, 129, esp 70, 72, and figs 123, 137.
  32. Skarsgård, Research and Reasoning, 58.
  33. The quotation is from Dunkerton et al., “Catalogue,” 72.
  34. Dunkerton et al., “Catalogue,” 72.
  35. The phrase is from Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), a study of ways in which modern observers had denied any meaning to pictures that displayed Christ’s genitals, some examples of which had also been overpainted.
  36. The figure is severely cropped in Andrea Schiavone’s c. 1559 version now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, which may be due to subsequent trimming on that edge. For details and reproductions, see Wethey, Titian, 140–141 (the painting there attributed to Teniers is now given to Frans Wouters and in the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh); Francis Richardson, Andrea Schiavone (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 54, 59–60, 163, 190–91, 194–95, nos 262, 327–28, 333; Terisio Pignatti, “Abbozzi and Ricordi: New Observations on Titian’s Technique,” in Titian 500, edited by Joseph Manca (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1993), 72–83.
  37. (published 25 November 2008; last accessed 17 November 2019). The figure is not mentioned in the excellent overview Revealing the African Presence.
  38. In the twentieth century, the latter fate befell Louis Antoine Collas’s Portrait of a Free Women of Color Wearing a Tignon (1829, New Orleans Museum of Art). Instances of figures painted out include Joaneath Spicer, “Pontormo’s Maria Salviati with Giulia de’ Medici,” The Walters Members Magazine 54, no 3 (Summer 2001): 4–6; Rosenthal and Lugo-Ortiz, “Envisioning Slave Portraiture,” 1, fig. I.1.
  39. Arranged by The Daily Mirror, and published in the 25 November 2008 issue: The ethnicity of the light-skinned woman on the far right is difficult to determine.
  40. Calum Colvin, email to the author, 14 October 2019. I am very grateful to Professor Colvin for his comments and his willingness to allow reproduction of the work.
  41. Jonathan Jones, “The £ 50m brothel scene,” The Guardian (17 December 2008) (accessed 17 October 2019). He concludes “Does Titian, too, include a black servant to show that he is actually portraying the courtesans of Venice? Is she the crucial clue that this is a brothel scene?”
  42. Kate Lowe, “The stereotyping of black Africans in Renaissance Europe,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 29–30.
  43. Certain places, such as Genoa and Sicily, explicitly outlawed the use of slaves as prostitutes: Epstein, Speaking of Slavery, 133–34.
  44. Skarsgård, Research and Reasoning, 48.
  45. Jane Nash, Veiled Images. Titian’s Mythological Paintings for Philip II (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1985), 41, 42, 43, 46, 63, 64.
  46. See Marie Tanner, “Chance and Coincidence in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon,” Art Bulletin 56, (1974): 535–50; Nash, Veiled Images, 64 and 82 n. 77; Marie Tanner, Sublime Truth and the Senses. Titian’s Poesie for King Philip II of Spain (London: Harvey Miller, 2018), 101–15.
  47. Wethey, Titian, 74.
  48. Giangiorgio Trissino, I Ritratti (first published in 1524), in Tutte le opera (Verona: Jacopo Vallarsi,1729), vol. 2, 272–273; Agnolo Firenzuola, On the Beauty of Women, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler and Jacqueline Murray (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 15, 28, 31, 45–46, 49, 57, 60, 62, 63, 65, 67 (first published in 1548); Federigo Luigini, Il libro della bella donna (Venice: Plinio Pietrasanta, 1554), 35, 43–44, 47–48, 51, 54, 56, 72, and passim; Mary Rogers, “The decorum of women’s beauty: Trissino, Firenzuola, Luigini and the representation of women in sixteenth-century painting,” Renaissance Studies 2 (1988): 47–88.
  49. Lorne Campbell, Renaissance Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 134; Woods-Marsden, “The Mistress as ‘Virtuous,’” 61.
  50. Trissino, I Ritratti, 273.
  51. David Summers, “Contrapposto: Style and Meaning in Renaissance Art,” Art Bulletin 59 (1977): 336–61. On comparison, see also Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, edited and translated by Cecil Grayson (London: Phaidon, 1972), 52–55 (1.18). I thank Mary Pardo for the latter reference.
  52. Summers, “Contrapposto,” 349.
  53. Summers, “Contrapposto,” 353.
  54. Spicer, Revealing the African Presence, 46, fig. 22 (with a different translation). The line is from a poem by Serafino Aquilano (1466–1500): Serafino de’ Ciminelli dall’Aquila, Le Rime, edited by Mario Menghini (Bologna: Romagnoli Dall’Acqua, 1894), 1:124, “e per tal variar natura è bella.” See also, for example, Alberti, On Painting, 52–53; Summers, “Contrapposto,” 359; Firenzuola, Beauty of Women, 10; Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 355–56 (mainly written in 1576); Tommaso Buoni, I problemi della bellezza (Venice: Ciotti, 1605), 24–25, 98.
  55. See, for instance, Song of Songs, 1:4 (“Nigra sum, sed Formosa”); Greek Anthology, 5.210; Giambattista Marino, La Lira, Part 3 (Venice: Ciotti, 1614), 9 (“Bella Schiava”).
  56. See n. 44 above.


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