Francesco Torbido and the Diversity of 16th century Venice

Was Renaissance Venice more culturally diverse than we’d initially assume? A painter by the name of Francesco Torbido may offer us a closer examination into the vibrant and assuredly diverse marketplace that was the port of Venice.

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Familiar works of art take on new importance when we ask questions. In a room filled with masterpieces by Titian, Velazquez, and Cellini, we often overlook this unassuming portrait of a woman. Although it’s not a famous painting,exploring the artist who created it shines a light onto the racial and ethnic diversity of Renaissance Venice. 

The Acquisition

In 1896, Isabella Stewart Gardner received a letter from her principal art agent, Bernard Berenson, offering a portrait.

`A painted portrait of a Lady in a Turban.

Francesco Torbido (Italian, about 1482–about 1562), Portrait of a Lady in a Turban, about 1516-1518. Oil on canvas
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (P26w7). See it in the Titian Room

He claimed that it depicted Isabella d’Este and attributed the painting (incorrectly) to Polidoro Lanzani. Berenson knew that Gardner esteemed this celebrated Renaissance collector and modeled herself in Isabella d’Este’s image. Not surprisingly, Gardner leaped at the opportunity, and it became part of the installation in her museum’s Titian Room.

After Gardner’s death, art historians studied the painting and drew two conclusions. Firstly, it is not a portrait of Isabella d’Este. Her costume and schuffa—the turban-like hairstyle formed of braids— tell us only that she was a wealthy woman who lived in northern Italy, perhaps Bergamo or Verona. Another similar example is seen in a drawing titled, Portrait of a Young Woman, attributed to Andrea Previtali, a painter who worked largely in Bergamo.

A sketch of a Portrait of a Young Woman.

Attributed to Andrea Previtali (Italian, about 1480 - 1528) Portrait of a Young Woman, about 1520–1525. Black chalk, heightened with white chalk. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (94.GB.36)

Secondly, scholars agree that the Gardner painting is not the work of Titian’s pupil Polidoro Lanzani. Based on comparisons with other paintings, we now attribute the painting to Francesco Torbido and date it around 1516–18. 

Who Was Francesco Torbido?

So, who was this painter Francesco? According to the historian Giorgio Vasari, Francesco trained with the Venetian painter Giorgione and, around 1500, left Venice for Verona, where he took up residence with a local noble family who became his patrons. The notion that contemporaries held him in high esteem is clear. He was awarded prestigious commissions, including frescoes for the choir of Verona cathedral. 

A fresco painted in a cathedral.

Francesco Torbido (Italian, about 1482–about 1562), Frescoes for the choir of the Verona Cathedral, 1534

His name – Francesco Torbido, called Il Moro – tells us a lot more. In Italian, the word torbido means “cloudy.” Francesco also went by a nickname, “the moor.” Although the term technically describes North African Muslims in Spain and Italy during the Middle Ages, Renaissance Italians used this word colloquially to describe dark skin color, Black African heritage, or both (Moro was also the surname of a Venetian noble family, but Francesco was not among their members). Combining the words torbido and moro, we can deduce that Francesco was likely mixed race, the child of one white parent and one black parent. Where might his Black parent have originated? His father’s name was Marco di India or “Marco from India.” On Renaissance maps, “India” was often used to identify Ethiopia, although the term could also refer to sub-Saharan Africa more generally. Marco was sometimes even referred to as “Francesco d’India”.

Could this be him? Some people even speculate that this signed painting to be his self-portrait.

A self portrait of Francesco Torbido

Francesco Torbido (Italian, about 1482–about 1562), Self-Portrait (?), about 1520. Oil on canvas
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (11420)

Cultural Diversity in Renaissance Venice

The painter Francesco was probably half Ethiopian. His Afro-European heritage reminds us of an often overlooked aspect of the lagoon city—its cultural diversity. According to legend, Venice was a city of immigrants. Its foundation myth celebrated a group of foreigners who fled persecution, took refuge in the lagoon, and transformed its tidal flats into a new home. Building an economy on trade, their port welcomed merchants from across the Mediterranean whose cargoes transformed the city into one of Europe’s most vibrant marketplaces. 

A close up of a hand drawn ship in an old book.

Marino Sanudo Torsello the Elder (Venice, about 1270 - 1343, author), The Book of Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross (Liber secretorum fidelium Crucis). Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City

Just because Venice was one of the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse cities in Europe does not mean it was a utopia. Diversity is different from equality, and equality from equity. Venice was one location on the Italian peninsula where enslaved people—both Black and white—were sold. Many ended up in the service of individuals both locally and in mainland court circles. Documents record that even Gardner’s esteemed role model, Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, once sent an agent to Venice in May 1491 to participate in the trade of enslaved peoples. The young Black child purchased by her agent may have been the age of the young man who appears in this Titian portrait of Laura dei Dianti, the lover of Isabella d’Este’s brother.

A painted portrait of Laura dei Dianti with a child.

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), Portrait of Laura dei Dianti, about 1523. Oil on canvas
Collection Heinz Kisters, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland.

The Marginalization of Minorities in Renaissance Venice

Venice also oppressed and marginalized other minorities. As a Christian state, the government—like many others on the Italian peninsula—forced Jewish community members to live in an enclosed district, whose previous function as the neighborhood of bronze foundries gave it the Venetian dialect name ghèto, from the Italian gettare (to cast) and the origin of the English term ghetto. And yet the local economy depended on Jewish businessmen, suggesting a level of interaction belied by physical obstacles or religious persecution.

Social Mobility?

Venice allowed some level of social mobility to a wealthy immigrant. The diversity of their roots resounded through the city’s middle class and upper class—the nobility, a caste eventually closed by law to newcomers. Extraterritorial origins were well known within this group, as illustrated by a fifteenth-century Venetian chronicle in the Gardner’s collection. It lists the city’s noble families, their accomplishments, and names their native lands, ranging from Bohemia, Brittany, and Syria, to cities in Italy, including Rome, Bologna, and Capua.

A page of handwritten text bordered with colored shields.

Italian, Venice, Chronicle of Venice, about 1500. Ink on paper
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (2.b.2.3, f151v). Isabella displayed this manuscript in the Dante Case in the Long Gallery.

Merchants unable to join the noble class could become citizens. With Venetian citizenship came the right to trade under the state’s protection at its many outposts throughout the Mediterranean. However, many people who resided in Venice were not citizens. We catch glimpses of them in Venetian paintings. One instance is the Black gondolier who plies the Grand Canal in Carpaccio’s Miracle of the True Cross

A painting of people in Venice looking out to the canal.

Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, 1465–1520), Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto, about 1496. Tempera on canvas
Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice

While many Black men and women in service jobs were enslaved, others were the descendants of freed slaves who found higher-ranking jobs. Documents from this period record Black Africans as marble workers and woodworkers, among other craft-based professions. Thus some inclusion was possible in Venetian society, even if this is a far cry for equity.

We don’t know for certain if Francesco’s father had been enslaved or was descended from a freed slave. What is clear is that Francesco was a successful artist and part of this socially mobile group. He achieved fame in his own time, some degree of financial independence, and the friendship of at least one Veronese noble family with whom he lived. This suggests that ethnic and cultural diversity in Venice extended further than we sometimes assume. 

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