Pollaiuolo’s Battle of Naked Africans?

This week has been concerned a strange, but fun, mixture of finalising our renaissance make up recipes for the Making Up the Renaissance study day (finding red sandalwood, allum and vinegar to make lipstick and blusher, for example), and avid reading of Alvise Cadamosto’s account of his voyages to Africa in the 1450s. As the cosmetics day is on Friday, I’ll blog about the properties of the renaissance make up next week. Today, I’ll stick to Cadamosto, which is a fascinating read, if you’re interested in finding out what Europeans thought about people from Africa, in a time when they weren’t really sure what was south of the Sahara.

Cadamosto (or Ca’ da Mosto) was a Venetian adventurer, who sailed on the Portuguese voyages of discovery to Western Africa in 1455-6, going to present-day Senegal. The important thing about his account is his detailed description of the climate, peoples and animals he encountered.  The account of his travels wasn’t published until 1507, but was available in manuscript form in Italy from the late 1460s.

Memmo di Filipuccio, Bed Scene, c. 1320, Palazzo del Podestà, San Gimignano

In chapter 2 of the renaissance nudes book, I talk about how Cadamosto’s description of the naked natives he saw influenced the way people thought about nakedness, and thus how the nude was represented in painting and sculpture. Before the 1470s, nude figures do occur in the visual arts, but its normally for understandable reasons that have to do with telling a story. So, for example, Adam and Eve are naked because that’s what it says about them in the Bible; or you might get figures in bed for scenes of lovers, who are naked for obvious reasons – although they almost always wear a hat, as above!  After the 1470s, though,  you start to get nudes who have no obvious narrative purpose.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo was a pioneer of the male-nude-in-action form, which was to become repeatedly revisited in Italian renaissance art. His most famous work is probably the incredibly influential Battle of Naked Men which – though obviously inspired by the heroic nudes of classical antiquity – show men who seem “primitive” (according to Joseph Manca), or “bestial” and “degraded” (Patricia Emison), or “undignified” and “vicious” (Alison Wright), which has been a bit of a mystery for art historians in terms of finding a convincing iconography.

It doesn’t correspond in every way, but Cadamosto’s account of battling African tribes in Senegal is very close in mood to Pollaiuolo’s image:

Antonio del Pollaiuolo Battle of the Nudes, c. 1470, this impression at the British Museum (for link, see below).

These black lords often got to war with one another, and also very frequently with their neighbours. Their wars are waged on foot, because they have very few horses … They do not have armour, but only have broad round shields, and for attack they carry many “Azanage”, which are their spears, and they throw them quickly … They also carry some Moorish swords (gomie), in the shape of a small scimitar, that is curved; and they are made of iron, not of steel ….  Also they carry into battle another weapon, an “azaga, almost like a ghiaverina (a type of Italian spear), but they don’t have any other weapons. Their wars are deadly, as their bodies are unprotected, many are slain. They are very daring and bestial: at every danger they would more quickly stay and kill each other than attempt to flee. They are not afraid of seeing their companions killed, as these men are so accustomed to death it seems that they do not care about it, and they do not fear death at all.

Cadamosto, elsewhere in his text, talks about how these Africans went around naked, about some tribes using poison arrows, and he emphasises the fertility of their land – perhaps reflected by the sorghum and vines in the back of the image.

I’m not claiming to have found the magic iconographical bullet, but the mood of the passage,  and, importantly, its attitude towards “bestial” African peoples, may have influenced Pollaiuolo and his Florentine patrons. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the voyages of discovery are fundamental to the development of the artistic nude.

More on the Pollaiuolo’s battle scene, plus lots of technical details and further reading at the excellent websites of:
The British MuseumThe Metropolitan Museum and The Cleveland Museum of Art

About jillburke

I'm a senior lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and the Associate Editor of the journal Renaissance Studies. I have a research blog for putting out ideas and research more quickly than traditional publishing allows, and also to include thoughts, material and info that won't fit in an article or book.
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