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04Nov

African Europeans by Olivette Otele review – an untold history

A fascinating history, with a memorable cast of characters, of Africans who had a vital presence in European life

Among the private drawings of the great Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer are two moving likenesses of African Europeans – so vivid and timeless you half expect them to look up and come to life. In Nuremberg in 1508, he sketched a young man with a small beard wearing a simple cloak. A decade on, lodging with a Portuguese merchant in Antwerp, he captured the image of a young woman of the household. “Katharina, 20 years old”, Dürer wrote above her portrait, to remind himself of their encounter. Later, designing his own coat of arms, he centred it around the bust of a Moor.

As Olivette Otele shows in her fascinating book, there was nothing very exceptional about any of this. By the 16th century, the black presence in European life and culture took many forms, and there was a long history of Africans living on the continent. Dürer could as easily have met such persons in Italy, Spain, or the Low Countries, as in the heart of Germany. And, in linking his own status explicitly with the image of a black man, he was probably following a heraldic tradition inaugurated by the Hohenstaufen emperors themselves.

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