Crocodile Tears: Collecting Objects and Consuming Bodies in Italy and West Africa, ca. 1450-1650
Ingrid received her PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago, and joined I Tatti as Postdoctoral Fellow in January 2017. Her primary areas of research are the visual and material cultures of early modern Italy and sub-Saharan Africa, and the history of collecting and display of African arts from the Renaissance onward. In particular, her work focuses on the exchanges between sub-Saharan West Africa and the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth to seventeen centuries, and the collecting of foreign materials by elites in both regions.
The stuffed crocodile—often hanging from the ceiling of a room crowded with a mix of man-made and natural objects mounted on walls, displayed on shelves, and stored in drawers—has become the quintessential image of the Renaissance studiolo, cabinet of curiosity, and Wunderkammer. While crocodiles, representing both the marvelous and the monstrous, had long been linked to Africa in the minds of Europeans, new material objects from sub-Saharan Africa such as exquisitely carved ivories (many with crocodilian motifs) began to travel throughout the early modern period, making their way into collections around the Italian peninsula. This project explores how the production, circulation, and acquisition of such objects was intimately bound up with the growing commercial contact between European and sub-Saharan African cultures, materially connecting the Medici and other celebrated collectors of the Renaissance with the greed and violence of the transatlantic slave trade. With the powerful signifiying qualities of the crocodile at the center, the project also considers how African elites obtained foreign luxuries and incorporated them into local practices, tying African participation in pre-colonial systems of exchange to the question of ‘collecting’ in the early modern period.