Robin Symes (London, England), sold to Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, 1988.
Statuette of a Seated Black African Boy
Populonia, Etruria (Place Created)
5.7 × 3.3 × 3.1 cm (2 1/4 × 1 5/16 × 1 1/4 in.)
Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman
A solid-cast statuette depicts a nude youth on a spool-shaped base, which originally functioned as the finial on a candelabrum. His short curly hair, furrowed forehead, short broad nose, and fleshy lips identify him as a Black African. Seated in a posture of repose and leaning his arm on the raised left knee, the young man cradles his head in the palm of his hand.
Commonly understood as a slave sleepily awaiting his master, the image of a napping youth is an ancient Egyptian motif that was popularized in Greece and Italy through the trade in Egyptianizing artifacts made in Cyprus, Rhodes, and Ionia. In the fifth century BC, Etruscan sculptors in the bronze workshops of Vulci adapted this imagery for decorative appliqués on equipment used at banquets and the funeral meal, as well as for vessel knobs. Domestic slaves from transalpine Europe and other regions were common in Etruria, but enslaved Black Africans would have been luxury commodities, signaling the status and power of their owners. Their images leant an exotic element to implements that alluded to the tasks enslaved people performed. Candelabra, thymiateria (incense burners), oinochoai (wine pitchers) in the shape of Black African heads, and other anthropomorphic utensils referenced the labor of enslaved people and naturalized it in ornamental forms.
Black Africans’ dark complexion and features marked them as physically distinct from Mediterranean peoples. They were believed to inhabit the mythical region of Aethiopia, a rich kingdom at the southern fringes of the known world. Although Etruscans were well acquainted with North African communities through close commercial and military alliances with Carthage, Black people appear infrequently in Etruscan art. On a hydria (water jar) made in Caere (modern-day Cerveteri) with the myth of Herakles vanquishing the Egyptian king Busiris (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. IV 3576), the vase-painter depicted both stereotyped caricatures of Egyptian priests and realistic portrayals of African warriors. Temple roofs in Caere and its port-sanctuary of Pyrgi were also decorated with antefixes and architectural sculptures depicting Black African faces. Those images as well as the bronze statuettes of a napping slave produced in nearby Vulci witness the influence of international cultural exchanges on the arts of southern Etruria.
Further reading: The motif of a dozing African is discussed in J. Masséglia, Body Language in Hellenistic Art and Society, 2015, pp. 159–67. On slavery in Etruria, see D. N. Briggs, “Servants at a Rich Man’s Feast: Early Etruscan Household Slaves and their Procurement,” Etruscan Studies 9, 2002, pp. 153–76. For the Caeretan hydria in Vienna with Herakles and Busiris, see J. Hemelrijk, Caeretan Hydriae, 2009, pls. 118–25. Architectural terracottas in the shape of African heads and other depictions of Black Africans in the arts of Etruria are illustrated in M. L. Gualandi, “L'immagine dei neri nel mondo greco e romano: spunti per un'interpretazione del mosaico di Populonia,” in C. Mascione and A. Patera, Materiali per Populonia 2, 2003, pp. 199–229. On images of enslaved individuals in the applied arts, see N. Lenski, “Working Models: Functional Art and Roman Conceptions of Slavery,” in M. George ed., Roman Slavery and Roman Material Culture, 2013, pp. 129–57.
True, Marion, and Kenneth Hamma, eds. A Passion For Antiquities. Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, exh. cat. (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994), pp. 161-62, cat. no. 74.
"Museum Acquisitions Between July 1, 1996, and June 30, 1998." The Report of the J. Paul Getty Trust (1997-98), p. 64.