Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Earliest European Representation of Native Americans?

A close up view of the possible image of Native Americans at the Vatican (Courtesy L'Osservatore Romano)
A close up view.
Photo: L'Osservatore Romano.
A new restoration of "The Resurrection", a fresco at the Vatican, has revealed that previously indistinct, distant figures may very well be the earliest images of Native Americans in European art, as reported in an article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano  (digested in English at Ansa.it).  The always insightful History Blog offers additional commentary here.

The fresco in question adorns a wall in the Borgia Apartment, a private wing built for Alexander VI (1492-1503) and decorated by Bernardo di Betto, called il Pinturicchio, and his assistants.  It was painted between 1492 and 1494, and thus completed not long after Christopher Columbus returned from the Americas with tantalizing reports of the local peoples and customs.  Alexander VI, indeed, spent much of the year 1493 addressing the ramifications of the Columbian voyage, crafting his bullae Inter Caetera (issued on May 4th, 1493), and Dudum Siquidem (September 26th, 1493) to divide the world beyond Europe between Portugal and Spain.  Unsurprising, then, that nude figures wearing feather headdresses in accordance with the vague descriptions of the newly encountered peoples would feature on one of the Pope's walls.  Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci, who announced the discovery in L’Osservatore Romano, advances the idea that these figures are dancing, but I don't see it.  These are men motion, to be sure, but let's not succumb too readily to the temptation of the "dancing natives" trope, ok?
Where's Waldo? Full image of  Pinturicchio’s “The Resurrection”.
The Native Americans are in the middle of the composition, just
above the open casket, beneath the risen Christ and behind
a Roman soldier looking above in awe.


1 comment:

  1. It looks vaguely influenced by various works depicting the Bacchae. Suppose there would be some connections drawn there, applied to a 16th century framework.