Uffizi gallery launches initiative to highlight black figures in world-class collection of masterpieces

Nick Squires
Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer 1504
Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer 1504

Famed for masterpieces such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is launching an initiative to raise the profile of hitherto neglected figures in its huge collection – black courtiers, kings and servants.

As interest in the Black Lives Matter movements grows, the art gallery wants to highlight the paintings in its collection which feature black characters.

The initiative, called Black Presence, will be launched on Saturday with a live Tik Tok tour and a Facebook music concert featuring Gabin Dabirè, a singer and instrumentalist from Burkina Faso in West Africa. 

It is an attempt to broaden interest away from the overwhelmingly white faces that appear in masterpieces by the likes of Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.

Black figures that appear in the Uffizi’s collection include kings from Abyssinia and Ethiopia, in portraits commissioned by Cosimo I de Medici in the 16th century as part of a series of paintings representing the most illustrious figures of the time.

In the Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Dürer, one of the three kings bears unmistakably African features, while in a painting of Perseus freeing Andromeda, by Piero di Cosimo (below), a musician with black skin and curly hair occupies the foreground.

Perseus freeing Andromeda
Perseus freeing Andromeda

In a painting entitled Madonna ‘Domenica delle Cascine’, la Cecca di Pratolino e Pietro Moro, by the Flemish artist Justus Sustermans, there is a trio of black figures.

These are just some of the artworks that feature people of African origin, the Uffizi said.

The stories of the black figures will be recounted on Tik Tok by Justin Randolph Thompson, the director and co-founder of Black History Month Florence, a festival held each year in the Tuscan city.

“The Uffizi is not some ivory tower of art; in fact its collections address the major issues of our contemporary world,” said Eike Schmidt, the German director of the gallery, who has embraced social media platforms such as Tik Tok as a way of reaching wider audiences.

“Through art, the museum can tell the great story of the past while also bringing the artworks to life in the present, because its masterpieces speak a universal language that helps us not only to comprehend their own era better, but also to understand the future that we wish to build”.

By exploring paintings which feature black figures, the gallery hopes to illustrate Africans’ “social and cultural presence in people’s mindset in Renaissance Europe, testifying to the extremely fertile exchanges that already existed between these two areas of the planet back then.”

he painting "King of Abyssinia" by Cristofano dell'Altissimo is seen at the Uffizi gallery, one of the artworks featured in its "Black Presence" project  - Reuters
he painting "King of Abyssinia" by Cristofano dell'Altissimo is seen at the Uffizi gallery, one of the artworks featured in its "Black Presence" project - Reuters

Designed and built by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century, the Palazzo degli Uffizi was originally home to Florence’s guilds, officials and magistrates – 'uffizi' in Italian means 'offices'.

It was eventually used to house the growing art collection of the Medici family, which was bequeathed to the city in 1743.