Slave trade in Livorno and elsewhere – History item of the month

A- A A+

Martín Casares, Aurelia, Rafael Benítez Sánchez-Blanco, and Andrea Schiavon, eds. Reflejos de la esclavitud en el arte: imagenes de Europa y América. Crónica/historia. Valencia: Tirant Humanidades, 2021.

The history item of this month was requested by a library user, to be specific a history doctoral researcher, about three weeks ago. As focused as we are on supporting research, it’s very normal in this library to receive purchase requests (here’s the form to submit one), which are often satisfied. As the history subject specialist, purchase requests are a very useful tool to guide my own selections, as they allow me to fine tune my searches to the needs of current EUI members. Of course, each request is evaluated on the basis of our collection development policy, a document guiding us librarians and the way we maintain the collection in its various stages.

As far as the history collection is concerned, history of art is not one of the main subjects for collection development as it’s usually secondary to the research carried out at the history department. On top of this, art history books are generally quite expensive and bulky, hence financially and physically burdensome for the Library. Moreover, in Florence there are excellent libraries for the history of art such as the Berenson library and Kunsthistorisches Institut library, where I usually invite researchers to go even when they don’t need anything specific, just to get an idea of the resources available in the libraries near us. One can easily imagine, however, that compartmentalising is not simple when we deal with interdisciplinary and intersectional work.

This is how this book ended up on my table. Reflejos de la esclavitud en el arte, despite its obvious focus on art, is a relevant title for our Library. It concerns the representation of slavery between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic from the 13th to the 18th century, a topical issue among current history researchers. Sculptures, paintings, mosaics, engravings and photographs by iconic, lesser-known and anonymous artists reveal facets of the life of slaves and their traders that ledgers, parish registers and contracts kept in archives cannot transmit.

Out of the eight essays in this book, I was drawn to chapter two, investigating the Monument of the Four Moors, Monumento dei Quattro Mori, in Livorno. Whenever I went to Livorno, the Tuscan port city just an hour away from Florence, I did not pay much attention to these sculptures in piazza Micheli, a square facing the harbour, which turns out to have a remarkable past. The marble statue of Duke Ferdinand of Tuscany was completed by Giovanni Bandini in 1621 to commemorate the Duke’s victories over the Ottomans. Five years later, Pietro Tacca completed the four bronze statues of Moorish slaves around the marble pedestal.

Livorno, Monumento dei quattro mori a Ferdinando II (1626) – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto

The author of this essay, Arturo Morgado García, delves into the influence of this monument on subsequent art and on the political and military efforts of Ferdinand I. The Duke of Tuscany supported Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, in his fight against the Ottoman Empire and strengthened the Tuscan fleet obtaining victories against pirates on the Barbary coast and against the Turkish fleet in the following year. As a result, 3,000 slaves were present in Livorno in 1616, more than a third of the city’s inhabitants. The Monument of the Four Moors is therefore a tangible trace of the regular trade that was carried out at the port of Livorno, where slaves were a familiar sight. Morgado García’s journey revolves around Livorno and early modern Italy, but it starts from Constantinople, carries on in Buda and ends in Saint Petersburg, shedding light on representations of slaves and slave trade in 17th and 18th-century Europe.

Reflejos de la esclavitud en el arte contains more than a hundred images illustrating aspects of the terrible and long-lasting global phenomenon of slavery such as the lives of enslaved people and the related behaviour of societies and individuals. This volume is classified at 704.08625 (Representation of slaves in art).