“The Moors” In The European Renaissance

When many Africans, commonly known as “Moors,”
(as well as other Muslims and Jews)
were expelled from the Iberian peninsula (by Manuel I of
Portugal in 1496 Ferdinad V and Isabella I of Spain in 1502),
some of them migrated to Northern and Central Europe where they became
important figures. At the same time, Western European nations,
beginning with Portugal, began
regularly sailing long distances to trade directly with Western and
Southern Africans. This trade
included African slaves, just as the trading of slaves had existed in
much of the world for centuries. Although there were
many European slaves in Europe (and Africa), it had become quite
fashionable for nobles to have African rather than Europeans as
servants. And as
more Africans were servants in noble households, they were increasingly
the subject of scorn in European society.

Nevertheless, Europeans had held Africans in high regard for centuries
prior, (from the Catholic patron saint, Maurice, to the
legendary black knights). Therefore it was possible for many Africans
to move to the highest eschelons of society, particularly in England,
the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Russia and Germany. Some became
nobles, military leaders, and other respectable professionals in royal
throughout Europe (excluding the Iberian peninsula). They became so
numerous in England that Queen Elizabeth I issued a warrant (July 1596)
and a proclamation (January 1601) by which she expelled all
“Blackmoores” from England:

The Queen is highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and black a moors which are [in England];
who are fostered here, to the great annoyance of her own people who are unhappy at the help these people receive, as also
most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ…

After Elizabeth’s reign, however, Africans were once again
present and active in England and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Royalty and Nobility

Alessandro de Medici, the mulatto ruler of Florence from 1530-1537

European Moors were not just servants and talented employees in royal
courts, but also royalty and nobles. Perhaps the most famous of all
was Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Penne and Duke of Florence, who was
commonly called “il moro,” Italian for “The Moor”. In his day, he was
officially recognized as
the son of the powerful Lorenzo II de Medici (1510-1537) and an unknown
African woman. Alessandro was the last Medici to rule Florence, having
assumed the throne
at the young age of 19. He commissioned the construction of the
Fortezza da Basso, a massive fortress in the historic center of town, as
well as other fortresses around town.
Purported to have had many enemies, he was assassinated by his own
cousin, Lorenzino de Medici in 1537.

“Portrait of an African Man” features an unknown noble in the Austrian royal court, by Jan Mostaert
(1520-30 AD); housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Dutch painter Jan Mostaert (1475-1556) depicted a Moorish nobleman who
likely in the royal court of Margaret of Austria in Malines. Other
Moors of high social status posed for German artist Albrecht Durer
(1471-1528) in 1508 and 1521. While not much is known about
the man, the woman’s name was Katherina from Antwerp, Belgium, and is
depicted with typically “Moorish” clothing of high regard (both of whom
are depicted below).

Albrecht Durer’s “Portrait of an African Man” features an unknown noble (1508); housed in the Albertina in Vienna

Durer’s “Portrait of an African Woman, Katherina” (1521)

Some Moors who had converted to Christianity in the Iberian peninsula in the 1500s also became prominent figures
in society, as shown in the painting below that depicts a busy scene in Lisbon’s Alfama
harbor. The man mounted on a horse in the foreground
appears to be of the highest social status of anyone in the scene. The
red cross on his cape most likely represents membership in the Order of Santiago
(St. James of the Sword), an Iberian military knighthood that dates to the
12th century AD. It is indeed documented that several Africans had been admitted to the Order,
including Luis Peres (1550), D. Pedro da
Silva (1579), and Joao de Sa Panasco, who was described in a 1547 royal court document as a
“homen preto cavaleiro de minha casa” or “black knight
man in my house” (1547).

Chafariz d’el Rei in the Alfama District, Lisbon (1560-80), the Berardo Collection, Lisbon

Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696-1781)

Several Africans who were kidnapped and later presented to royal
families, eventually became educated and rose to prominent positions in
society. Such was the case of Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696-1781), who
is better known as the great-grandfather of Russian literary hero,
Pushkin. Gannibal is of uncertain origins (scholars commonly believe he
was born in either Eritrea, Ethiopia, or Cameroon), but he is known to
have been kidnapped at the age of 7 by Ottoman slave traders and
taken to the court of Sultan Mustafa II in 1703. He was later bought
a Russian ambassador who sent him to the court of Emperor Pyotr
Alexeyevich (Peter the Great). Peter saw greatness in Abram, who was
asked to
accompany Peter in military campaigns. Like many nobles of his
day, Abram studied in France in 1717, where he took up foreign language,
mathematics, science and war studies.
A year later, he joined the French Army, quickly rose to
captain, and proved himself worthy in battle while fighting against the
Spanish. After sustaining an injury, he
enrolled in artillery school in Metz, France. He completed his
education by 1722 and returned to Russia to work as a military engineer.
In 1725,
following the death of Peter the Great, Prince Menshikov rose to
power and exiled Abram to Siberia. However, in 1730, upon the ascent
of Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter,
Abram was pardoned and made major general and superintendent of
Reval from 1742-1752. He later retired to an estate with hundreds of
European slaves.

Angelo Soliman (1720-1796)

An Austrian named Angelo Soliman (1720-1796), who is said to be a
native of Central Africa where he was kidnapped at a young age and later
presented in 1734 to Prince Georg Christian, Furst von Lobkowitz.
Soliman served as Georg’s
confidant, however, as he grew older, Soliman became fluent in 6
languages, was a master swordsman,
navigator and renowned music composer. In his adult life, he climbed to
the top of Vienna’s high society and joined Concord Freemason’s lodge
where he
became Grand Master and a major intellectual influence on Austrian
Emperor Joseph II, Count Franz Moritz
von Lacy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Josef Haydn.

Gustav Badin (1750-1822) playing chess

At a young age, Gustav Badin (1750-1822, named Couschi at birth), was kidnapped, taken to Sweden and presented to Queen Louisa
Ulrika of Prussia in 1757. Intrigued by the teachings of Rousseau, Louisa set out to teach Gustav how to
read and write, and about Christianity and etiquette, as an experiment to see if a “morian” (Swedish for Moor) could be “civil.”
Then he was allowed to make all his own choices, unlike her other children. He later pursued poetry,
theatre and dance, and based on his extensive library of mostly French books, was well versed in the French
language. Upon the death of Queen Louisa, it was Gustav whom she trusted with her personal files, perhaps to
the dismay of her son. In his latter years, he married twice, owned two farms, and was an esteemed
member of the Freemasons as well as the Swedish secret societies of Par Bricole, Svea Orden, and Timmermansorden.

Julius Soubise (1754 – 1798), was kidnapped at age 10, taken to Britain by Naval Cpt. Stair Douglas and given to the Duchess of
Queensbury. Charmed by his intelligence and good looks, she sent Soubise to school where he mastered the violin,
riding and fencing. As he grew older he rose to prominence in London high society and was known for living a very lavish
lifestyle. He was even featured in William Austin’s satirical works, “The Duchess of Queensbury and Soubise” and “A Mungo
Macoroni.” In his latter days, he left England for disputable reasons and started a riding school in Calcutta, India in 1777.


John Blanke, trumpeting at a royal tournament circa 1510

As aforementioned, Moors
frequented the courts of European royalty, not merely as
servants, but as skilled employees. Perhaps no other skilled workers
were as highly valued to
the ruling class as musicians and entertainers. According to
the UK National Archives, Scotland’s King James IV (1473-1513) employed
several African drummers and
choreographers in 1505. King James’ Treasurer’s accounts also
recorded monetary payments to
several black women including, “Blak Elene” (1512), a “blak madin” ,
“Blak Margaret” (1513), “two blak ladies”, and a
“Helenor, the blak moir [Moor]”.

Similarly, England’s King Henry VII and Henry VIII’s courts had African
employees. The most famous was
John Blanke (1500s), a musician who was paid on a daily basis,
as noted in the Treasurer of the Chamber’s accounts. His image can be
seen on the UK National Archives’ “Westminster Tournament Scroll” of
Henry VIII (shown at right). The Archives asserts that it was perhaps
one of the most important royal galas, suggesting the high regard
for John Blanke, “the blacke”.

Engagement of St. Ursula and Prince Etherius” by Master of Saint Auta in
the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal (c. 1520)

“Moor and Peasant in Dance,” in the Nuremberg Municipal Library

A Moorish military musician in Berlin by Peter Schenk (c. 1690)

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