Blackamoor Style

By Karen Parr-Moody


Blackamoor figures have long been favorites of interior designers, antique collectors and tastemakers. The history of these stylized depictions of Africans and Arabians – known collectively as Moors – can be traced to 17th-century Italy. The blackamoor sculptures of the famous sculptor Andrea Brustolon (1662–1732) are the most well-known.   


Blackamoors were a favorite style statement of the Victorian era; I discovered two on a recent tour of Denver’s Molly Brown House Museum, a Victorian mansion resplendent in period décor (one of two blackamoors, photo, right).


According to the New World Encyclopedia, “The Moors were the medieval Muslim inhabitants of al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula including present day Spain and Portugal), as well as the Maghreb and western Africa, whose culture is often called Moorish. The word was also used more generally in Europe to refer to anyone of Arab or African descent, sometimes called Blackamoors.


Slathered in gilt and gemstones, blackamoor figures are particularly decorative and are commonly seen as furniture, paintings, jewelry and textiles. They are typically swathed in fine robes and almost always wear turbans.


Fashion and beauty icons Coco Chanel and Helena Rubinstein collected blackamoor furniture (two Venetian Blackamoors graced the foyer of Chanel’s Paris apartment; see photo, left). Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland had a famous collection of blackamoor jewelry from Cartier and Grace Kelly owned a diamond-encrusted blackamoor brooch from Nardi Jewelers of Venice (see photo, right).


The Pointer Sisters’ Anita Pointer has some blackamoor pieces in her collection of black memorabilia. And Aleksandr Pushkin kept a blackamoor figurine on his desk; it reminded him of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, his great-grandfather, an African slave who became a successful Russian general and military engineer.


The most famous blackamoor figure is the gem-studded Mohr mit Smaragdstufe, which translates to "Moor with Emerald Cluster" (photo, left). Created by Balthasar Permoser in 1724, it is housed in the Grünes Gewölbe museum in Germany.


At times blackamoors are depicted as exotic noblemen, while at others they take on positions of servitude, as footmen or waiters. Their noblemen status dates to the Moorish invasion of southern Italy more than a millennium ago; their roots are steeped in conquest.


However, some find blackamoor imagery to be racially insensitive because of the aspect of servitude many figures reflect. This dates to the European courts in which black attendants were dressed in exotic finery – and, some feel, were objectified as ornaments. This was particularly true of the court of Versailles in the 17th century.


When Dolce & Gabbana featured blackamoor jewelry and clothing designs in its spring 2013 collection fashion show in Milan, the firm was criticized for being tone-deaf as to what blackamoors can represent. The firm responded that such imagery was a reflection of the Italian firm’s roots in a country in which Moors were of historic significance.


In truth, the production of blackamoors has been a respected craft in Florence and Venice for centuries. Many Italian families, such as the Puccis, have kept heirloom blackamoor figures in their art collections.


During the 18th centurywealthy Venetians employed Moors as bodyguards, as they were impressed by their fighting prowess. The regal bearing of the resulting depictions seem to put these exotic immigrants in high regard; they are beautiful and are not demeaned in any way, as evidenced by this sculpture by Andrea Brustolon (photo, right).


Venetians also took Moors on as servants and heads of grand houses. Figures of this nature reveal that their status had been downgraded from threatening conquerors to workaday personages (or, one could argue, trusted employee). Here the topic becomes complicated, as these figures are seen in a form of servitude, something which makes certain viewers uncomfortable.


That said, people of all races have been depicted in ways that depict a variety of statuses and modes of employment. Take, for example, the depiction of English farmhands found in 19th-century Staffordshire pottery pieces such as “The Harvest.” The peasants of the 17th-century paintings of the Dutch Golden Age are another example.


One thing is certain: blackamoors are not to be confused with emblems of American slavery, such as the more recent “Aunt Jemima” figures. To make this mistake is to make a mistake of history.


In 2011 a diamond, sapphire and gold blackamoor brooch once owned by Elizabeth Taylor sold for $60,000 at Christie’s. One look at the piece, photo left, reveals the delicacy and respect with which the piece was created by the famous Venetian jewelry, Giulio Nardi, an artist of jewelry design.


Another amazing blackamoor rendition is found in this bust by Balthasar Permoser (photo, right).


In the end, the decision to collect blackamoor figures or jewelry is personal. If one feels a blackamoor piece possesses grace and is depicted with admiration on the part of the artist, as with works by Brustolon, Nardi, Permoser and more, I feel it would be no disrespect to the Moors’ history to purchase and display it.


However, if the is not depicted in such manner, eschew it. For example, I would never purchase a blackamoor that looks cartoonish or is featured in an uncomfortable position of servitude (i.e., crouched down while holding a tabletop on his head).


As mentioned before, Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland was a well-known collector of blackamoor fine jewelry. She famously said: “Have I ever showed you my little blackamoor heads from Cartier with their enameled turbans? I’m told it’s not in good taste to wear blackamoors anymore, but I think I’ll revive them.”







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