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‘REPRESENTING’ AFRICA: AMBASSADORS AND PRINCES FROM CHRISTIAN AFRICA TO RENAISSANCE ITALY AND PORTUGAL, 1402–1608*

  • Kate Lowe
Abstract

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a number of sub-Saharan envoys and ambassadors from Christian countries, predominantly Ethiopia and the Congo, were sent to Portugal and Italy. This essay shows how cultural assumptions on both sides complicated their task of ‘representing’ Africa. These African ambassadors and princes represented the interests of their rulers or their countries in a variety of ways, from forging personal relationships with the king or pope, to providing knowledge of the African continent and African societies, to acquiring knowledge of European languages and behaviours, to negotiating about war, to petitioning for religious or technological help, to carrying out fact-finding missions. But Renaissance preconceptions of Africa and Africans, reinforced by the slave trade, and Renaissance and papal assumptions about diplomatic interaction, ensured that the encounters remained unsatisfactory, as this cultural history of diplomacy makes clear. The focus of the essay is on religious and cultural exchange and the ceremonial culture of embassies.

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1 For information on Africans in Europe between 1400 and 1600, see Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (Cambridge, 2005).

2 This is not the place to address how African ambassadors fitted into the diplomatic scene in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy in terms of the change from temporary ambassadors to ambassadors with a particular remit to resident ambassadors. On this change, see Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (1955), 64–90, and Mallett, Michael, ‘Ambassadors and their Audiences in Renaissance Italy’, Renaissance Studies, 8 (1994), 229–43 at 229–30.

3 I am using this word in inverted commas to signal the multiple levels at which representation took place. In this period, the primary aim of embassies was not, in a formal way, to represent their countries, but to act as message-bearers, request-seekers and news-gatherers.

4 Jorga, N., ‘Notes et extraits pour servir à l'histoire des croisades au XVe siècle’, Revue de l'Orient latin, 4 (1896), 25118, 226–320, 503–622 at 252, and N. Jorga, ‘Cenni sulle relazioni tra l'Abissinia e l'Europa cattolica nei secoli XIV–XV, con un itinerario inedito del secolo XV’, in Centenario della nascita di Michele Amari (2 vols., Palermo, 1910), i, 139–50 at 142.

5 Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana [hereafter BNM], MSS lat., cl. xiv, 93 (=4530), fo. 64r: ‘una pelle de uno homo salvego e una pelle de uno aseno de diversi colore’; cited in C. Cipolla, ‘Prete Jane e Francesco Novello da Carrara’, Archivio veneto, 6 (1873), 323–4.

6 Venice, BNM, MSS. lat., cl. xiv, 93 (=4530), fo. 67r: ‘Vidi hilariter et iocunde pelles’; cited in Cipolla, ‘Prete Jane’, 324.

7 Kaplan, Paul H. D., The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor, 1985), 226n.

8 Lazzarini, Vittorio, ‘Un'ambasciata etiopica in Italia nel 1404’, Atti del Reale Istituto veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti, 83, 2 (1923–4), 839–47 at 842 (Italian translation) and 846 (Latin).

9 On the association of sub-Saharan Africans with apes, see H. Janson, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1952), 65 n. 97 and 67–9 n. 105. In a second note with exactly the same title as his one of the year before (see n. 5), Cipolla, C., ‘Prete Jane e Francesco Novello da Carrrara’, Archivio veneto, 7 (1874), 111, writes that the skin must have been of an orang-utan.

10 Cf. OED etymology: ‘perh. Afr. for “wild man”, in Greek account of Hanno's voyage 5th or 6th century b.c., adopted as specific name 1847’. According to Pliny the Elder, Natural History, with an English translation by H. Rackham (10 vols., Cambridge, MA, 1956–63), vol. ii, Book vi, xxxvi, 200–1 (487 in English translation), Hanno sent the skins of two wild, hairy women/female apes he found in the Ethiopian islands back to the temple of Juno in Carthage, where they were displayed as curiosities.

11 Giuseppe Gennari, Annali della città di Padova (3 vols., Bassano, 1804), ii, 211, and Filippo Zamboni, Gli Ezzelini, Dante e gli schiavi: Roma e la schiavitù personale domestica (Rome and Turin, 1906), 249.

12 Lloyd, Joan Barclay, African Animals in Renaissance Literature and Art (Oxford, 1971), 29, and Francisco Alvares, The Prester John of the Indies, ed. C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford (2 vols., Cambridge, 1961), i, 128.

13 Celenza, Christopher, Renaissance Humanism and the Papal Curia: Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger's De curiae commodes (Ann Arbor, MI, 1999), 177.

14 For an English translation, see The Three Kings of Cologne. An Early English Translation of the ‘Historia trivium regum’ by John of Hildesheim, edited from the MSS, together with the Latin text, by Carl Horstmann (1886).

15 Lazzarini, ‘Un'ambasciata etiopica’, 843–4 and Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus, 114 n. 226.

16 Burke, Peter, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication (Cambridge, 1987), 173 and 175.

17 Faria, Leite de, ‘Uma relação de Rui de Pina sobre o Congo escrita em 1492’, Studia, 19 (1966), 223303 at 271.

18 Burke, Historical Anthropology, 181.

19 Città del Vaticano, Archivio Segreto Vaticano [hereafter AV], Arm. xliv, t. 5, fo. 108r.

20 In his discussions with Paris de Grassis, Giovanni Battista Brocchi denied the existence of this practice, Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana [hereafter BAV], Vat. lat. 12270, fo. 89r.

21 Lisbon, Instituto dos Arquivos Nacionais/Torre do Tombo [hereafter ANTT], Corpo Chronológico [hereafter CC] i, maço 15, doc. 110, and Monumenta missionaria Africana: África Ocidental, ed. António Brásio (series i, 15 vols., Lisbon, 1952–88), i (1471–1531), 288.

22 Lisbon, ANTT, CC i, maço 16, doc. 10, and Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 290.

23 Lisbon, ANTT, CC i, maço 19, doc. 62, and Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 342.

24 Portugal e os Descobrimentos: o Encontro de Civilações (Lisbon, 1992), 102 (illustration) and 103.

25 See Barros, João de, Ásia (Lisbon, 1778), década i, liv. iii, cap. ix, Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 79–80, and Filippo Pigafetta, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo and of the Surrounding Countries, Drawn out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese Duarte Lopez (1970), 43 and 72.

26 Pigafetta, A Report, 73–6, and História do Reino do Congo (MS. 8080 da Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa), ed. António Brásio (Lisbon, 1969), 66–9.

27 Os Negros em Portugal – Séculos XV a XIX (exhibition catalogue), Mosteiro de Belém (Lisbon, 1999), 182.

28 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 12516, fo. 2r, and Città del Vaticano, AV, Fondo Borghese, serie ii, 24, fo. 174r.

29 Phillips, J. R. S., The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford, 1988), 151–4; Ullendorf, Edward and Beckingham, C. F., The Hebrew Letters of Prester John (Oxford, 1982), 89.

30 Monumenta missionaria Africana: África Ocidental, ed. António Brásio, ii (1532–69), 85–6.

31 His instructions dated 15 Jan. 1583 are in Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, iii (1570–99), 234–5. See also J. Cuvelier and L. Jadin, L'ancien Congo d'après les archives romaines (1518–1640) (Brussels, 1954), 128.

32 Baziota, François, Ne-Kongo en Afrique centrale XVe–XVIIIe siècles (Rome, 1971), 78–9.

33 Monumenta missionaria Africana: África Ocidental, ed. Brásio, suplemento, xv, 33.

34 I am using the word embassy relatively loosely to encompass not only formal or official embassies, but also missions of a less formal nature.

35 See, e.g., Lettere tra i pontefici romani e i principi etiopici: secoli XII–XX, ed. Osvaldo Raineri (Città del Vaticano, 2003).

36 See, e.g., the letter dated 31 May 1515 from Afonso, king of the Congo, to Manuel I of Portugal, requesting a favour and supplying the names of two relatives he is sending to Lisbon as his representatives: in Lisbon, ANTT, CC i, maço 17, doc. 135, and Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 333–4.

37 See, e.g., the letter dated only 1512 from Afonso, king of the Congo, to Pope Julius II, offering obedience and giving the pope the names of his two ambassadors: in Lisbon, ANTT, CC ii, maço 30, doc. 1, and Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 270–1.

38 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 12270, fo. 90r, and Renato Lefevre, ‘Cronaca inedita di un'ambasciata etiopica a Sisto IV’, Roma, 18 (1940), 360–9 at 367.

39 Enrico Cerulli, ‘Eugenio IV e gli Etiopi al Concilio di Firenze nel 1441’, Rendiconti della R. Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di scienze, morali, storiche e filologiche, serie 6, ix (1933), 347–68 at 351–2, talks of the oration given by Pietro the deacon on 2 Sept. 1441 at his reception by Eugenius. An Italian version of this oration has been published in Franco Cardini, ‘Una versione volgare del discorso degli “ambasciatori” etiopici al Concilio di Firenze’, Archivio storico italiano, dispensa ii (1972), 269–76 at 274–6.

40 See Michele Lazzaroni and Antonio Muñoz, Filarete, scultore e architetto del secolo XV (Rome, 1908), ch. 2: ‘Averlino a Roma. Le porte di San Pietro (1433–1445)’, 12–122 at 75, 78–9 and figs. 64 and 65.

41 Michael Gervers, ‘The Portuguese Import of Luxury Textiles to Ethiopia in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and their Subsequent Artistic Influence’, in Isabel Boavida, The Indigenous and the Foreign in Christian Ethiopian Art: On Portuguese–Ethiopian Contacts in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ed. Manuel João Ramos with Isabel Boavida (Aldershot, 2004), 121–34 at 127.

42 Città del Vaticano, AV, Arm. xlv, 20, fo. 14r–v. See Epistolae ad Principes, ed. Luigi Nanni (3 vols., Città del Vaticano, 1992–7), i, 412.

43 Lisbon, ANTT, CC i, maço 2, doc. 103, and Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 154–5.

44 Damião de Góis, Chronica do Feliçissimo Rei Dom Emanuel (Lisbon, 1566), part iii, cap. xxxvii, and Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 222.

45 Elbl, Ivana, ‘Prestige Considerations and the Changing Interest of the Portuguese Crown in Sub-Saharan Atlantic Africa, 1444–1580’, Portuguese Studies Review, 10, 2 (2003), 1536 at 27–8. As Bemoim's mother was not the principal wife of the king, Bemoim was considered ‘illegitimate’ in Portugal.

46 P. E. Russell, ‘White Kings on Black Kings: Rui de Pina and the Problem of Black African Sovereignty’, in P. E. Russell, Portugal, Spain and the African Atlantic, 1343–1490: Chivalry and Crusade from John of Gaunt to Henry the Navigator (Aldershot, 1995), 151–63.

47 Russell, ‘White Kings on Black Kings’, 157–62.

48 Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, i, 345.

49 On this embassy, see Aubin, Jean, ‘L'ambassade du Prêtre Jean a D. Manuel’, Mare Luso-Indicum, 3 (1976), 156.

50 Faria, António Machado de, ‘Cavaleiros da Ordem de Cristo no século XVI’, Arqueologia e História, 6 (1955), 1373 at 63 and 50.

51 Dutra, Francis A., ‘A Hard-Fought Struggle for Recognition: Manuel Gonçalves Doria, First Afro-Brazilian to Become a Knight of Santiago’, The Americas, 56 (1 July 1990), 93–4, nos. 13–14.

52 Kate Lowe, ‘The Stereotyping of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe’, in Black Africans, ed. Earle and Lowe, 17–47 at 29 and fig. 3 (whole painting), and Annemarie Jordan, ‘Images of Empire: Slaves in the Lisbon Household and Court of Catherine of Austria’, in Black Africans, ed. Earle and Lowe, 155–80 at 159–60 and fig. 39 (detail of black knight).

53 On Leo Africanus, see Dietrich Rauchenberger, Johannes Leo der Afrikaner. Seine Beschreibung des Raumes zwischen Nil und Niger nach dem Urtext (Wiesbaden, 1999), and Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds (New York, 2006).

54 Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa Written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo a More, trans. John Pory (1600). See also the Hakluyt edition: Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa and of the Notable Things Therein Contained, done into English in the year 1600 by John Pory, ed. and with an introduction and notes by Dr Robert Brown (3 vols., 1896).

55 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds latins 4802, fos. 130–1.

56 Although Ptolemy said that north should go at the top of a map and here north is not at the top.

57 The intention was to give most prominence to Ethiopia (south of the confluence of the Blue/White Niles).

58 Laura Mannoni, ‘Una carta italiana del bacino del Nilo e dell'Etiopia del secolo XV’, in Pubblicazioni dell'Istituto di geografia della Reale università di Roma, serie B, i (Rome, 1932), 7–12 at 12.

59 Mazzatinti, Giuseppe, La biblioteca dei re d'Aragona in Napoli (Rocca S. Casciano, 1897), xxi.

60 Leporace, Tullia Gasparrini, Il mappamondo di Fra Mauro (Venice, 1956), plate x. Unfortunately, I have not been able to see Falchetta, P., Fra Mauro's Map of the World with a Commentary and Translations of the Inscriptions (Turnhout, 2006).

61 London, British Library, Cotton MSS Additional MS 5415A. This atlas was commissioned by Queen Mary of England (hence its name) for her husband Philip II of Spain. There is a facsimile edition of The Queen Mary Atlas, with a separate book of Commentary by Peter Barbour (2005); the ruler of Ethiopia appears on Map viii of this, and of the Manicongo on Map vii.

62 d'Adda, Girolamo, Indagini storiche artistiche e bibliografiche sulla libreria Visconteo-Sforzesca del castello di Pavia (Milan, 1875), 118.

63 Vasconcelos, Basílio de, Itinerário do Dr. Jerónimo Münzer (Coimbra, 1932), 54.

64 Tamrat, Taddesse, Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270–1527 (Oxford, 1972), 267.

65 Leonessa, P. Mauro de, Santo Stefano Maggiore degli Abissini e le relazioni romano-etiopiche (Città del Vaticano, 1929), esp. 171–91.

66 Lefevre, Renato, ‘Note sulla penetrazione europea in Etiopia’, Annali Lateranensi, 9 (1945), 361407 at 396–9, and Lefevre, Renato, ‘Giovanni Brocchi da Imola e i suoi viaggi in Etiopia’, Annali Lateranensi, 9 (1945), 407–44 at 430.

67 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 12270: Paris de Grassis, ‘Tractate de oratoribus Romane Curie’.

68 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 12270, fo. 89v.

69 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 12270, fos. 15r–16v.

70 Città del Vaticano, AV, Arm. xl, t. 50, n. 110: ‘Sopra la cosa del re negro qual chiamano re de Congro ad me pare che purché se restrenga ad Congro se possi chiamare imperatore, re et duca secondo informi la parte.’

71 See Fabio Colonna di Stigliano, ‘Il monumento del negro in Santa Maria Maggiore e l'ambasciata congolese a Roma del 1608’, Roma, 3 (1925), 109–21 and 154–69, and ‘Cose dell'altro mondo’. L'ambasceria di Antonio Emanuele, Principe di N'Funta, detto ‘il Negrita’ (1604–1608) nella Roma di Paolo V, ed. Luis Martínez Ferrer and Marco Nocca (Città del Vaticano, 2003).

72 His progress can be followed in the avvisi in Città del Vaticano, BAV, Urb. Lat. 1076, part i.

73 Città del Vaticano, AV, Fondo Borghese, serie i, 721, fo. 192r.

74 Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus, 103 and 118.

75 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Urb. Lat. 1076, part i, fo. 6r.

76 Thornton, John, ‘Early Kongo–Portuguese Relations: A New Interpretation’, History in Africa, 8 (1981), 183204 at 187.

77 Raineri, Osvaldo, ‘I doni della Serenissima al re Davide I d'Etiopia (MS Raineri 43 della Vaticana)’, Orientalia christiana periodica, 65 (1999), 363448.

78 Sergew Hable-Selassie, ‘The Ge'ez Letters of Queen Eleni and Libne Dingil to John, King of Portugal’, in IV Congresso internazionale di studi etiopici (2 vols., Rome, 1974), i, 547–66 at 554 and 557.

79 Lefevre, Renato, ‘L'ambasceria di David Re d'Etiopia a Clemente VII (1533)’, Accademie e biblioteche d'Italia, 34 (1966), 230–48 and 324–38 at 236–9.

80 Cf. Tamrat, Church and State, 267.

81 Trexler, Richard, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1980), 325.

82 Alvares, The Prester John, i, 298 (ch. 81), and see Heldman, Marilyn E., ‘A Chalice from Venice for Emperor Dāwit of Ethiopia’, Bulletin of the School of Oiental and African Studies, 53, 3 (1990), 442–5 at 443–4.

83 Raineri, ‘I doni’, 373.

84 Ibid., 372.

85 Città del Vaticano, AV, Reg. Vat. 360, fo. 120v.

86 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 6823, fo. 64v, and Città del Vaticano, Vat. lat. 5255, fo. 155v.

87 Pacetti, Dionisio, ‘Le prediche autografe di S. Giacomo della Marca (1393–1476) con un saggio delle medesime’, Archivium franciscanum historicum, 35 (1942), 296317, and 36 (1943), 75–97 at 94–5.

88 Città del Vaticano, BAV, Vat. lat. 12270, fo. 90v; Lefevre, ‘Cronaca inedita’, 367.

89 Mallett, ‘Ambassadors and their Audiences’, 235.

90 Alvares, The Prester John, ii, 417–18 (ch. 115).

91 See Città del Vaticano, AV, Arm. xli, t. 1, n. 129, where Clement VII grants Keymolen the privilege of printing these letters.

92 Paolo Giovio was also responsible for the translation of the Ethiopian letters from Latin into Italian. See Lefevre, Renato, ‘Divagazioni di poeti e di eruditi sul regno di prete Gianni’, Annali Lateranensi, 8 (1944), 5589 at 69.

93 Lefevre, ‘Divagazioni’, 78.

94 This name is inscribed on a late sixteenth-century miniature in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which is a copy after the painting from the Giovio collection in the Uffizi in Florence.

95 His baptismal name was Lebna Dengel and his thronal name was Wānag Sagād, ‘revered by lions’. See Lawrance, Jeremy, ‘The Middle Indies: Damião de Góis on Prester John and the Ethiopians’, Renaissance Studies, 6, 34 (1992), 306–24 at 307.

96 Paoli Iovii Novocomensis Episcopi Nucerini historiarum sui temporis (Basel, 1567), 866: ‘rotundo ore mali cotonei sub cinere tosti colorem exprimente’ . . . ‘capillo non plane more Aethiopum intorto’.

97 L'ambasciaria di David Re dell'Etiopia al Santissimo S. N. Clemente Papa VII insieme con la obbedienza al prefato Santissimo S. N. resa (Bologna, 1533), sigs. civ and ciir.

98 Ibid., sig. ciiir.

99 Ibid., sig. dir.

100 Creoles typically draw all their vocabulary from one language but have a grammatical structure that is atypical.

101 See, e.g., Monumenta missionaria Africana, ed. Brásio, ii, 38–40, and John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1998), 213–14.

* Versions or portions of this essay have been presented at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Oxford University and Stanford University. I am grateful to these audiences for their helpful comments.

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