Connected by Design: Material and Aesthetic Exchange between Italy and Africa in the Era of the Slave Trade
Cécile Fromont is an associate professor in the History of Art Department at Yale University. Her writing and teaching focus on the visual, material, and religious culture of Africa and Latin America with a special emphasis on the early modern period (circa 1500-1800) and on the Portuguese-speaking Atlantic World. She is the author of The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo (2014 translated into French in 2018), and the editor and a contributor to Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas: Performance, Representation, and the Making of Black Atlantic Tradition (2019). Her latest book, Images on a Mission in Early Modern Kongo and Angola is forthcoming in 2022 with Pennsylvania State University Press.
A deep misconception about the Atlantic slave trade consists in thinking that European merchants acquired their human cargo on the African coast in exchange of unremarkable, trifling trade goods. In reality, the wares traded on the African coast encompassed a vertiginous complexity in their range, nature, combinations and fluctuating social and economic worth. In this project, I study the broad, and heretofore largely unpublished corpus of glass beads, metalwork, textiles, and luxury goods created in the context of the Atlantic slave trade. Bringing together research in the archives of slave trading companies and Italian merchant houses with close examination of museum objects made for the trade or with material acquired through it, this project sheds light on the material and aesthetic connections that linked Italy, Europe, and Africa in the early modern period. Analyzing the conception, production, and circulation of these rare or luxurious goods between Italy, Europe, and Africa allows for a richer and more balanced understanding of the long lasting, profound interactions that unfolded across and around the Atlantic world. It also sketches a fuller account of African men and women’s historical engagement with visual and material novelty and of their multivalent role in shaping the commercial, political, and intellectual trajectories of the global early modern world.