Between Tuscany and Ethiopia: The Miracle of the Black Leg and the Perception of Christian Africa in Early Renaissance Italy
Scott Nethersole is Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art, 1400-1500, at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. He holds a PhD from The Courtauld, too. His research focuses on the art and visual culture of fifteenth-century Florence, although his new projects extend far beyond the confines of the Italian peninsula and into Africa. He has published widely on the relationship between art and violence in Renaissance Florence, including a monograph with Yale University Press in 2018. He is also interested in the reception of fifteenth-century artists in the seventeenth century, in altarpieces of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti.
What were the boundaries of difference and prejudice in Florence in the fifteenth century? Did a Christian soul count for more than skin color? For the high altar of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a scene in which Saints Cosmas and Damian graft the black leg of a deceased Ethiopian onto the body of a white deacon. The deacon, upon awaking, ‘saw nothing,’ no difference. Did he, or his interpreters in Florence around 1440, really have no moral objection to his new black leg? It would seem that the issue was not that the leg was black, but whether or not it came from a Christian. This project investigates representations of the Miracle of the Black Leg, in a period just before the advent of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It draws on textual and visual sources, departing from paintings by the Master of the Rinuccini Chapel, Bicci di Lorenzo, Fra Angelico and Sano di Pietro. It investigates how, in an age before the development of a discourse on race (at least one couched in nineteenth-century terms), notions of difference related to skin color. Fifteenth-century Italians distinguished people, above all, in terms of religion. This project hopes to contribute to our understand of the relationship between these images and Italian knowledge of Christian Africa in the early Renaissance.