Objects Circulation, Material Culture, and the History of Enslaved People in and outside Africa

In 2016, I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, launched the ongoing project “Crossroads Africa.” Recognizing that the sub-Saharan African continent in particular has been anachronistically isolated from Renaissance studies, I Tatti’s project aims to bolster the visibility of Africa’s historical significance in the early modern world and encourage new scholarship that puts the Italian peninsula into dialogue with the African continent. To date, this project has included the conference “Gold: The Universal Equivalent of Global Dreams, Desires, Arts, and Values in Early Modern History” (2016); an Exploratory Seminar on cultural exchange with and within the African continent (I Tatti/Harvard/KHI, 2017); the international conference “Cape Verde and the Atlantic” in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde (I Tatti/Forum Transregionale Studien/Kriol-Ità, 2019); and the international conference “Crossroads Africa” (I Tatti, 2019), with an edited volume in progress from the I Tatti Research Series published by Harvard University Press. I Tatti and the DHI Rome are also collaborating on a fellowship that will offer post-doctoral scholars working in African studies c. 1250 -1750 a one-year position to conduct historical research in Italy supported by two institutes with dynamic academic communities.

I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence, Italy

Ingrid Greenfield, Postdoctoral Fellow at I Tatti, and Carlo Taviani, Project Researcher at the DHI Rome and Co-Fellow at I Tatti and coordinator of a submodule at the DHI Rome within the project “Knowledge Unbound: Internationalization, Networking, Innovation in and by the Max Weber Stiftung,” are collaborating together on I Tatti’s Africa project. Carlo interviewed Ingrid on the subject of exchange between West Africa and the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries.

Ingrid Greenfield, how does your work focus on knowledge circulation?

Through the analysis of inventories in conjunction with surviving objects, the study of collecting in late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy really reveals a history of transformation. Any exercise in locating African material, whether stuffed crocodiles or sculpted ivories, within these collection throughout the peninsula makes the crucial point that objects moved – physically, yes, from one continent to another, from one architectural space to another, but also between identities and categories of knowledge. African artefacts, both naturalia and man-made objects, were not fixed; they had the capacity to carry a multiplicity of significances. There was no stable classification like “exotica” that contained and explained them. That label, so often assigned by modern scholars to African material circulating in early modern contexts, can sometimes be useful, but it is so easy to deploy that as a consequence, more complex, fragmented, or fraught histories of African objects have been obscured.

Who were the people (agents, traders etc.) involved in collecting and trading?

We still tend to associate Italian Renaissance collections with an individual or family’s purposeful activity, the fulfillment of a vision, the seeking out of certain items to fill a space, to communicate a message. But this is just one facet. Many “collecting activities” in Europe depended upon, or even originate with, African agency in locally procuring or producing goods, making these items available to Europeans for trade, or sending items as diplomatic gifts to European courts. In addition, the acquisition of luxury goods from around the globe during the early modern period, a cultural practice still strongly linked to the Italian Renaissance, is in fact uniquely suited to encouraging new perspectives and new questions in the study of the contact zone of coastal West Africa, a region traditionally considered peripheral to Renaissance visual culture. By working across traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries, drawing upon not only archival documents relating to trade networks but also the surviving African artefacts themselves, our intention is to emphasize this internationally connected system of economic and artistic exchanges.

Fortaleza Real de São Felipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde

In the late 1580s, in a gesture of friendship and alliance, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando de’ Medici sent a painted lacquer desk made in Japan or China to the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden; around the same time, a dignitary hoping to ingratiate himself with the king of Bussis (an island in present-day Guiné-Bissau), attempted to purchase an expensive Chinese writingdesk from a Lisbon dealer as a gift for this African ruler. While the acquisition and exchange of rare and costly foreign goods in Europe is well known, documents testify to the procurement and use of similar items by African elites. I am interested in knowing more about how rulers in coastal West Africa obtained foreign luxuries (in other words, rare or costly goods that were not produced nearby), displayed or stored them in their households, and incorporated the prestige objects into local practices (or in some cases, developed new practices). This is not news to Africanists studying contact zones and cross-cultural encounter in this era; nevertheless, I believe it is worthwhile to explicitly tie African participation in pre-colonial systems of exchange to the question of “collecting” in the early modern period. By framing objects and the people who desired them, manipulated them, and displayed them, within a large and open network of economic and artistic transactions, I want to recast the crucial Renaissance theme of collecting in such a way as to expand the scope of commercial, cultural, and geographic histories traditionally deemed pertinent to its study by early modernists.

Historians tend to use written sources, while art historians work on material culture and objects. Why is it important to focus on non-written sources if we want to study history of Africa?

A prevalent misconception about early contact between African leaders and Europeans exploring the African coastline was that these encounters led to quick and efficient European conquest and exploitation. In fact, after early raids for slaves along the West African coast met with increasing local resistance in the 1440s, Europeans began to make considerable efforts to maintain positive relations with African leaders, a detail often left out of discussions of European exploration and Atlantic world histories. Because our textual sources from the period are predominantly European, the personal agendas of Africans involved with European trade are tricky to discern. However, an individual’s engagement with material things – with objects familiar and unfamiliar to them – can reveal details about their cultural values, belief systems, economy, or politics, even when reported by an outsider.

European accounts of the Sierra Leone region from the late fifteenth through the mid-seventeenth centuries mention the availability and quality of locally-made ivory objects, and comment on the skilled craftsmanship of the local artisans, who they refer to as Sapi, a Portuguese term applied broadly to coastal groups. The language of some of these descriptions, which are sources well known to historians of pre-colonial Africa, make clear that Europeans visiting the region could purchase or commission a variety of works in ivory. The African artists who sculpted these objects from elephant tusks used ostensibly functional forms like hunting horns, saltcellars, and utensils – all recognizable to Europeans as a signal of elite status – as vehicles for a complex interweaving of imagery and ornamentation ranging from vegetal motifs, beading, and zig-zags, to human and animal figures. These ivories were among the most highly prized African-made objects brought to Europe in the early modern period.

European-language sources written in the context of Afro-European trade contain a great deal of information about aspects of trade of course, but also record observations about West African societies, cultures, politics, the environment. We can also dig for something like African “experiences” through the authors’ reports of what local people tell them or how they explain cultural practices and belief systems. These are obviously heavily mediated by the writer, but nevertheless offer the potential for doing historical research on the Senegambian and Upper Guinea regions in the late fifteenth century and forward.

Scholars studying Africa know how much it is important to set up institutional collaborations and think about future generations of scholars. This is crucial for a continent like Africa, which is facing huge economic and social transformation. Which are the institutional activities you did and are planning?

So far I have participated to the organization of two conferences. The first one took place on 28–29 January 2019, in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde. It was entitled “Cape Verde and the Atlantic: Crossroads of People, Goods and Capital Investments (1460–1610)”, an international conference spearheaded by Carlo Taviani (at that time I Tatti Research Associate/Co-Fellow with the German Historical Institute in Rome). The village of Cidade Velha was once known as Ribeira Grande, the first permanent European settlement in the tropics. It quickly became a hub for maritime routes connecting Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. The conference brought together scholars from Italy, Trinidad and Tobago, the US, and Canada with historians, archeologists, and archivists based in Cape Verde for site visits and presentations focused on the islands’ primacy in the earliest centuries of transatlantic trade. In their introductory remarks, President Jorge Carlos Fonseca stressed the importance of such public conferences in not only facilitating scholarly exchange, but also disseminating to a wider Caboverdean public the significance of Cape Verde as a crossroads of people and goods in the Atlantic in the early modern period. Organized in cooperation with Villa I Tatti and the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien, the conference also relied on local support from the Municipality of Ribeira Grande de Santiago, the UNESCO Chair of History and Heritage of the University of Cape Verde, and the Associazione di amicizia Italia-Capo Verde Kriol-Ità.

In 2017, I Tatti began to develop an initiative intended to stimulate increased scholarship on cultural exchange with and within the African continent during the early globalization of trade relations, c. 1250–1700. With this ongoing project, we consider geographic regions of Africa not as detached and isolated from one another or from the wider world, but as contact zones with the connective power to participate in and in some cases to control the transformative networks of exchange that have come to characterize the early modern period.

During the Conference “Crossroads Africa” at I Tatti, May 2019

In May 2019, I Tatti held a two-day conference titled “Crossroads Africa” which brought together art historians and curators, archaeologists, and historians of political institutions, economics, and the slave trade, interested in crossing historiographical and geographical frontiers to explore how Africans played active roles in shaping global histories and creating transnational spaces that continue to inform the circulation of people, goods, and ideas today.

The interview was held by Carlo Taviani, project researcher at the German Historical Institute in Rome and coordinator of the DHI Rome-submodule – Genoese Merchant Networks in Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean (ca. 1450–1530).


Ingrid Greenfield is an art historian specialized on African objects and Post-Doctoral Fellow and Assistant to the Director for Academic Programs at I Tatti.


This interview was first published in the magazine Weltweit vor Ort.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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