Allegory on the art canvas

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    In the course of history, various Roma groups have found themselves at the center of geopolitical developments across the continent. Roma, Manouche, Calderash, Sinti, Travellers throughout history have been regarded as vagrants, fortune tellers, beggars, thieves and spies. Society reduced them to clichés, fantasies and intrigues, thus viewing them as those outside the world and established frameworks. Of the estimated ten to twelve million Roma living in Europe, about half are citizens or residents of the European Union, making it its largest ethnic minority.

    It is precisely this nation, rich in its cultural pluralism, that has been on the world-famous art canvases for six centuries, presented differently, often depicting the socio-political-historical context and circumstances. How different Roma groups are represented in the Louvre and Prado art collections is analyzed in two editions of the Council of Europe by Sarah Carmona, professor of history and philosophy, who deals with topics of decolonial methodology in the fields of history, Roma history, decolonial knowledge, epistemiology and art. Bohemians, Gypsies, fortune tellers, Travellers and musicians can be found in them, but who could say that they can see Roma, Sinti, Kalderash, Kale, Manouches or Lovari in them?, asks herself the author, to whom the art collections have served in an extensive study as a means of deciphering the connections that create the structure for (still present) romophobia and anti-Romaism. The same message is sent in the forewords of both editions, which emphasize the perception of Roma in the general public and provide an idea of complex mechanisms that construct stereotypes that underlie discrimination, but also help the reader understand the role and contribution of the Roma to European history. Thus, both editions take us on a tour of museum collections, offering multidisciplinary teaching materials with detailed maps and contextualization.

    How it all began

    Research shows that Roma migrated from India to Persia in the early Middle Ages, settling in Byzantine territories, from where they migrated in smaller groups. Until the beginning of the 15th century, they lived all over Europe.

    Some of the world’s most famous museums, the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid, in their collection of paintings by the most famous masters of European painting, have a considerable number of works depicting the Roma community and characters in clothing characteristic of it during different periods of time. Even though these works are seen, studied and admired by thousands of visitors daily, the characters depicted on them remain invisible. Thus, after the religious and moral themes common to pictorial representations up to the 15th century, the Roma community was subjected to the political treatment characteristic of the 19th century so that ultimately artistic representation culminated in their orientalization. Both collections offer their own approaches to otherness related to the peculiarities of French and Spanish history, while at the same time certain points coincide by offering the same transnational European thought.

    From Raphael to Goya, Bosch to Niccolò dell’Abate via Caravaggio, Bourdon, Brueghel, Jan van de Venne, Madrazo y Gareta, Navez, and Corot, disembodiment is a common leitmotif. There are only a few works that escape this logic, thus giving us a paradigm to decipher, Carmona states.

    Furthermore, it is stated that until the 16th century, Romani clothing and regalia, among other things, were used to depict biblical characters known for their hermeneutical and prophetic gifts. After the second half of the 16th century, and especially with the repeated use of the fortune teller by Caravaggio and his followers, the Roma community began to appear on artistic canvases as the embodiment of vice, theft and cunning. Later, when Romanticism and then Orientalism emerged as systems of thought and representation, revealing how the West perceived the Other, the Romani figure became sexualized and the female body objectified. What was previously fantasy or even the reviled norm became the reference through “de- ethnicization”. Cultural appropriation, which different Romani groups remain victims of today, was already in the making, the author points out.

    She further states that these foreigners from “Little Egypt”, as the Roma were called in the chronicles of the late Middle Ages, were primarily assimilated into the three main archetypal figures of medieval Western culture. This is evident through the themes of biblical Egypt and exile as described in the Old Testament, then through the themes of female figures from the New Testament and the motifs of nursing mothers in the context of telluric forces, as well.

    From the herald

    The earliest depiction of the aforementioned topos appeared in the triptych of the famous Virgin (The Glorious Virgin, circa 1485), an anonymous Flemish tapestry from the end of the 15th century, exhibited in the Louvre Museum. For this research, the author focused on the panel on the left showing migrations, namely a scene from the Old Testament and a Jewish woman accompanied by a child, dressed like Romani women from that era, when Egypt still had a positive connotation. Besides, a woman dressed in the style of a Romani woman in her left hand holds a child on her lap, and it is pointed out that this figure of an ontologically caring mother is the only common theme in the development of Roma femininity from late medieval chronicles to 19th century poetry.

    A similar depiction is found in the preparatory drawing showing Moses sailing in a basket (Moses saved from the water, 1539) by Niccolòa dell’Abate. Pharaoh’s daughter’s hair was curled in a circular style and tied with ribbons, in a way typical of Romani women in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, so such a hairstyle has become a feature of the Egyptian women depicted.

    The author then leads us to the figure of St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who appears in the Louvre on several occasions, dressed in the manner of a Romani woman of that time. In Prado we can see her in the painting The Holy Family (La Perla, 1518) by the painters Raffaello Sanzi and Giulio Romano, in which Elizabeth has a sad expression on her face, predicting a difficult future, she is a herald, which was already believed to be a characteristic of Romani women. She is portrayed with dark skin and sharp facial features, in a striped turban.


    In many scenes from the 15th and 16th centuries we find female characters dressed in a similar way or with a flat hat, also characteristic of Romani women. Examples include works by Boccaccio, dell’Abbate, Correggio, Ansaldo, Mantegna or Titian in other European collections.

    A turnaround will follow in the representation of Roma individuality, artistic and symbolic, where clichés, themes of fortune tellers, beggars and thieves will occupy the narrative of those portrayed as transmitters of knowledge through biblical performances and motifs of the prophetess Sibyl.  When otherness cannot be “tamed”, Carmona emphasizes, it must be expelled beyond the boundaries of norms, and the ‘other’ must be made an outsider. When this domestication cannot be fully attained, the other must be banished outside the boundaries of the self, the structuring norms. The other must be made into an outsider. The allegory of vice and deception of the image is particularly projected on Romani women, which will be especially visible in the following text.

    To the fortune teller

    During the 16th century, witch-hunting was already widespread in Europe. At the end of the 15th century, Pope Innocent VIII. issued a bull by which he incited persecutions and trials against those who practiced witchcraft and sorcery, but also against heretics in general. Another triptych, this time by Hieronymus Bosch (The Haywain Triptych, 1512-15), reflects the way in which artists and their audiences viewed marginalized groups, linking them to sin, reprehensible behaviour, and insanity. Nevertheless, Bosch was strongly influenced by both folklore customs and rituals. Thus he could not resist showing the especial love of the mother, associating it with Romani women, in a rather wild but nevertheless non-threatening natural setting.

    The same cannot be said for the 17th century when the character of the fortune teller takes center stage, as is the case in works depicting Roma fortune tellers, by Nicolas Régnier (The Fortune Teller, circa 1626) and Valentin de Boulogne (The Fortune Teller, circa 1628). Although it has been noticed that this iconographic archetype was not created by Caravaggio himself, as can also be found several decades earlier, for example in the aforementioned triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, the author points out that his school of caravaggio spread the artistic and moral motif at the international level by portraying a Roma woman as a symbol of seduction, cunning and robbery. In such a manner they removed the fortune teller from her complexity and the richness of her world, isolating her and turning her to an allegorical representation of immorality, says Carmona. The influence of Caravaggio was also pointed out by the American art historian, Bernard Berenson, who stated that with the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter has had such a great influence.

    In the above-mentioned example of Nicolas Régnier, the motif is also strongly eroticized, the author adds, and this scheme embodies the beginning of the orientalist view of Roma women, forged with fascination, fear and fantasy. Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller (The Fortune Teller, 1595-98) depicts a fortune teller and a young man, reading the future from the palm of his hand. The position of her fingers, with the index finger on the young man’s ring finger, suggests that she will steal his jewelry. From this one gets the impression that these pictorial representations are not only a warning to those who go to markets, taverns and other public places to beware of pickpockets, but also a criticism to those who believed in fortune-telling.

    In France, Bohémien, a common pejorative name for the Roma community, approximately around the middle of the 17th century, and consistent with the concept of the nation-state derived from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, began to be viewed increasingly negative. Yet another work by Valentin de Boulogne was analyzed in the Louvre collection, depicting a theme similar to that of a fortune teller – a young man who was robbed by a Romani woman in the darkness of a cabaret (Musicians and Drinkers, 1625). Later, as it is well known, bohemian motifs and way of life were used in the creation of various cultural contents, from Puccini’s opera La Bohème in the 19th century to the chanson of the same name by Charles Aznavour a century later.

    For everything that followed, the 17th and 18th centuries were among the most terrible periods for the Roma community. A secret operation to arrest Roma carried out during the reign of King Ferdinand VI of Spain had far-reaching effects on the Spanish Gitana community. With thousands deported, imprisoned, punished, injured, killed and Roma sentenced to forced labor, the internal structure of the community has completely changed, with severe consequences for the Romani language, the use of which has been banned.

    Between imagination and reality

    In the century of the Enlightenment, Roma groups were portrayed in an environment that was established as an allegory of natural freedom, unlike the society of that time, which was bound by strict rules and social norms. Sébastien Bourdon’s painting (Soldiers at Rest / Gypsies at Rest, 1640–43) depicts several people, including a young Roma woman feeding a child, surrounded by ruins, a cave and a distant landscape.

    Here it is definitely worth mentioning Jan van de Venna, known as le Maître des Tziganes (Master of the Roma), who in his pictographic treatment of Roma figures emphasizes, as the author notices, deep empathy with the status of his models, showing a certain respect towards modest, noble characters. A small painting, slightly larger than a sheet of paper, depicts a Roma family preparing an outdoor meal (Gypsy Camp, 17th century). The three women and the child shown in the picture vividly represent the four stages of life. Van de Venne gives us a very special view of the Roma women of that time. They are dignified, they embody the love of a mother, and although they are portrayed in an environment typical of that century, this depiction contains fewer stereotypes than the depictions of his contemporaries.


    Such examples are few because in the period from the 16th to the 18th century depictions of Roma characters were mostly fictional, and motifs such as magic, ancient art, primitive innocence and sensuality were already ubiquitous. As a result, since the 18th century, it has been difficult to recognize the boundary between projection and reality. Here, the author cites examples of Alessandro Magnasco’s display of a wedding feast (Gypsy Wedding Feast, 1730-35) and as well as a depiction of a Roma woman (Gypsy Girl, circa 1630) by Frans Hals from a century earlier, in which nothing but the title suggests character recognition. They are fictional, and in the formal negation of otherness, only the title confirms that they are members of the Roma community.

    Until the end of the 18th century, the genre of portraiture in painting was accompanied by a certain prestige and social status, and there were almost no examples of realistic portraits representing the Roma community. It is also a period of the process of defining nations and establishing a new geopolitical reality, and the idea of the people as the bearer of sovereignty, which is beginning to be seen as an expression of the general will of that same people, will culminate in the French Revolution.


    Between attraction and repulsion

    The Prado houses several hundred works by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who is also one of the painters most responsible for the popularization of majo and maja (also manolo and manola) characters. These are members of the lower class who, with their dress and demeanour, expressed contempt for the then common social norms, opposing French influence. According to the author, in this period of painting, and especially in Goya’s oeuvre, it is difficult to distinguish the models and identities of the Maya, the Gitan and the Bandolero.

    The analyzed collection from the Prado Museum also includes a painting of a Romani woman by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (A Gypsy, 1871), which exudes flamenco aesthetics – in a floral red dress with a lace scarf, dark curly hair adorned with carnations. She is shown up to the waist, arms crossed, with earrings and a necklace made of coral, a favorite among Romani women.

    From the end of the 19th century, a painting depicting a Roma woman with a Basque tambourine by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (Zingara with a Basque tambourine, around 1865–70) stands out as well. Her melancholy look and sad face makes the visitor stop and look at her because this young girl whose tambourine is meant to ethnicise her, has the dignified eroticism of all the stereotypes of Prosper Mérimée relating to Gypsy women, explains Carmona. So ever since the novella was written and the opera performed, Carmen has embodied a free spirit that pays with its death, imbued with stereotypes related to sexuality, fortune-telling and criminal activities. Nothing new, we would conclude, because Romani women are also portrayed on art canvases in such a manner – as women who seduce with their dance, mesmerizing gaze, who enchant and foretell the future. Whereas painters turned from biblical and mythological motifs to real and everyday characters, the same cannot also be said in the case of depicting Roma women (and the Roma community in general). Very seldom can examples of their realistic portrayal be found, and sensuality was perceived as the main determinant of their being.

    The author states that those who produce art have an ethical responsibility towards otherness because the artist forms a motif using plastic art, the writer creates topos, and power structures turn them into schemes. At the very end of this process, she concludes, history is responsible for crystallizing them into stereotypes.


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