The above is a beautiful and extremely detailed painting completed around 1496 by Vittore Carpaccio of the Rialto Bridge in Venice when it was still made of wood. (It collapsed several times over the centuries until the stone version we know today was constructed between 1588 and 1591.)
Carpaccio was a prolific painter of the late 15th century and early 16th century best known for his hyper realistic portrayals of Renaissance Venice. (For a delightful little book on Carpaccio and his paintings, I highly recommend Jan Morris’ Ciao Carpaccio!: An Infatuation.)
So look a little closer at the gondoliers in the painting above. What do you notice? The most prominent one is clearly of African descent. If Carpaccio painted it, it is extremely likely that some black gondoliers were plying their trade around the canals of Venice in the late 15th century.
In 2013, Kate Lowe, Professor of Renaissance History and Culture at Queen Mary University of London, published a fascinating article in the journal Renaissance Quarterly entitled “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice” (available via Jstor).
Research on this subject is exceedingly difficult due to translation inconsistencies and lack of clarity in original words (for instance, the Italian word servo could mean either servant or slave, and use of words like nero or moro may have indicated skin color or merely anyone not Italian). For instance, a nobleman named Cristoforo Moro (often taken to mean Moor, or North African) was doge from 1462-1471, and one can plainly see in the portrait below that he was white. Only the word Ethiops specifically denoted a black African domestic slave, while Saracen seems to have indicated a black African who arrived via the Ottoman Empire or who may have been Muslim. Regardless, all such words were devoid of any negative connotations.
Slavery in medieval Italy was widely accepted and consisted mainly of white people. Slaves from sub-Saharan Africa were brought to Venice in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and most worked as domestics, a category that included gondoliers. Slavery in Renaissance Venice was not necessarily a lifelong state, with slaves frequently freed upon the death of their owners or after some agreed-upon number of years of service. Lest one thinks this was all due to an owner’s goodness, more likely it saved them from having to care for a less-than-useful slave in old age. Moreover, even upon freedom, their slaved histories stayed attached to them. It was therefore crucial to stay on as good as terms as possible with one’s former owner.
Still, some owners did right by their slaves upon freedom, for instance buying them a place at a ferry station to start an independent career or giving them a certain sum for cooperative behavior to get them started on their free lives or as dowries. Other slaves endured terrible situations and tried to run away, sometimes committing murder or being murdered in their efforts.
Regarding black gondoliers specifically, if they worked for a private household they were almost surely slaves. If they worked in public for-hire settings (sort of like contemporary Uber drivers), they were likely free. The latter would have been allowed to join professional associations or guilds (scuole in Venice), allowing them to participate and be included in many aspects of Venetian society. They were a significant subset of the thousands of gondoliers who were non-Venetian generally.
Possibly the men who worked as gondoliers came from coastal areas, including Africa, presumably conferring on them the opportunity to learn to swim. That might explain the black man in the lower-right quadrant of Gentile Bellini‘s painting below who appears ready to dive into the canal to retrieve the relic being thrown into the waters.
In all, it seems that people of African descent, although not large in number, were an accepted part of life in Renaissance Venice, contributing to society as equals upon freedom, a very plausible phase in their lives. Racism based on skin color as we know it today did not exist; rather, discrimination in society was due to either class or slave status, whether black, white, or from the Ottoman Empire, or whether one was Venetian or not.
For more Renaissance art featuring black people, visit the online exhibit On Being Present: Recovering Blackness in the Uffizi Galleries.