Because most economic historians assumed – for the most part, correctly – that slavery in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean did not engender racial or ethnic rationales in favour of slavery, they regarded the ancestral origins and skin colour of slaves as merely two among several demographic factors, such as gender and age. They showed more interest in religion, which they understood to play a greater role in legitimising enslavement. Recent efforts to establish continuity between Mediterranean slavery and that of the Atlantic have taken a different approach. Now medieval and early modern scholars well-read in the literature on North and South American slavery have developed a healthy scepticism about the assumptions embedded in the work of economic historians of an earlier generation. Perhaps skin colour and ethnic origins, they hypothesise, were not arbitrary categories as was previously thought. Not surprisingly, the more recent efforts began by reassessing what was known about black Africans in the Christian Mediterranean.
Sub-Saharan African slaves show up in northern Italian records as early as the mid- fourteenth century. Until the mid-fifteenth century, Italian merchants from the north- ern peninsula acquired black African slaves mainly from Muslim merchants. When Portugal began to transport captives from the western coast of the African continent in the first half of the fifteenth century, Lisbon became another, important source of black African slaves.
And Portugal was never to be heard of again in world history.
At no time, however, did black Africans constitute more than a small minority of any slave population in a city of northern Italy. In southern Italy, their presence is detectable much earlier and persists much longer, due in part to Sicily’s commercial and political relations with Aragon and to its proximity to the markets of north Africa. Salvatore Bono estimates that black Africans in Sicily accounted for half of the servile population in the sixteenth century,
Explains a lot.
but their numbers decrease sharply thereafter as slave traders directed their supplies of captive Africans increasingly to the colonies in the western hemisphere. To replace them, slave traders in Sicily turned to Muslims from the Maghreb. Wherever in Italy black Africans were for sale, their prices fell significantly below those of lighter-skinned slaves, which suggests that they were not as much in demand as slaves from Central Asia or eastern Europe and reinforces the impression taken by previous historians that Italians had a prejudice against dark-skinned people.
Funny how this works huh. You get a market, where some things are bought and sold. When a product doesn't sell well, the assumption is that there's something wrong with the product. When Blacks don't sell well, the market is rigged and the buyers are evil racists.
The scarcity of black Africans in Italian cities undoubtedly reinforced the exotic quality that some contemporary Italians attributed to them. But their visibility in the art of the period suggests that they were few enough to be exotic but common enough not to look out of place as servants in a painting. Isabella d’Este and members of her family are the best-known examples of fifteenth-century patrons who avidly sought but had to make considerable efforts to find captive black African children to add to their collection of slaves, servants, retainers, and objects of curiosity. In part, because they never constituted more than a very small minority of the slave populations of the cities of Italy, rationales for their subjugation on the basis of skin colour did not take hold as they did in Spain and Portugal. The interest today in black Africans in late medieval and early modern Italy seems shaped more by the knowledge of the catastrophic outcome of the Iberian and English systems of slavery across the Atlantic than their numbers would warrant.
I'd say the interest seems shaped in that academics wanna be holierthanthou.
Still, sub-Saharan Africans lived in Renaissance Italy, but there is no reason to believe their masters manumitted them less than slaves from elsewhere. This raises the question of freed slaves, all of whom would have been of non-European origin, who were incorporated into Italian city populations. During the period of domestic slavery, slaves could attain free status either through an outright grant of manumission later in life or as a condition of their owners’ last wishes as expressed in wills. Slave owners usually placed conditions on the free status they granted their former slaves. Retaining control over them in the form of patronatus, masters and mistresses freed their slaves on the condition that they continue to serve in their households for a set period of years. The promise of manumission in a slave owner’s will incited some slaves to murder their owners, prompting the government of Genoa to prohibit testamentary manumissions. Nevertheless manumissions do not appear to have been rare. Although there is no way to know how often owners manumitted their slaves, a sufficient number of acts of manumission from Florence, Genoa, and Venice survive to suggest that, even if the great majority of slaves never achieved free status, enough of them did to create the hope of manumission as a reward for a lifetime of involuntary service.
I wonder how represented were black slaves among those who murdered their masters in Genoa.
Given the ethnic diversity of slaves in Italy, the practice of manumitting slaves meant that Italian cities absorbed ex-slaves into their populations. A much understudied topic, freed slaves and their descendants appear not in only in records but also in the art of the period. Venetian court records, for instance, contain numerous references to men and women described as ‘tartarus’ or ‘tartara’ with no indication that they were or had been slaves, although it is highly likely that they had been or were descended from those who were. It was very common for ex-slaves to state their freed status in contracts in order to ward off possible counter-claims on themselves and their property. By the fifteenth century, the ubiquity in the archival record of the term ‘Tartar’ may indicate that it had become for the Venetians a catch-all label, like ‘Slav’ for ‘slave’, but more likely the term designated ex-slaves and their descendants.
Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that all black Africans that appear in fif- teenth- and sixteenth-century art were slaves, since there is nothing to suggest that Africans benefited from the custom of manumission any less often than other slaves. The black African gondolieri in paintings by artists like Carpaccio or Veronese’s servants in ‘The House of Levy’ are likely to have been either slaves or free domestic servants, who had once been enslaved or who were descended from freed slaves. Nor is there any reason to assume that black slave women did not bear the same burden of sexual service. One scholar, in fact, has made a case to show that the mother of Alessandro de’ Medici, the first Medici duke of Florence, was a freed African slave. Whether freed slaves, especially those more darkly complected, stood on the margins of urban populations or became thoroughly and seamlessly assimilated in them is a question awaiting an answer.
The son of a slave, an African one at that, became the Medici duke of Florence! No kidding. What is this, the American Dream in Renaissance Italy? If Europeans were that cool on illegitimate children of slaves and upwards mobility, what did you need a Revolution for?