16.11.31, Patton, Envisioning Others

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Byron Ellsworth Hamann

The Medieval Review 16.11.31

Patton, Pamela A., ed. Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 62. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. xiv, 368. ISBN: 978-90-04-26917-0 (hardback) 978-90-04-30215-0 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Byron Hamann
Ohio State University

Envisioning Others is the expanded product of a session at the College Art Association meetings from 2013: "Representations of 'Race' in Iberia and the Ibero-American World." All five of those papers are represented here, and they range from medieval and early modern Catalonia (Chapter 1), through seventeenth-century Cartagena (Chapter 3), the seventeenth- through early nineteenth-century Andes (Chapter 6), to nineteenth-century Mexico (Chapter 7), and twentieth-century Spain (Chapter 9). The medieval-to-modern transatlantic vision of the conference session serves as a framework of the current volume, which is expanded by an introduction, plus additional papers on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain (Chapter 2), an alternative view of seventeenth-century Cartagena (Chapter 4), the eighteenth-century Atlantic (with key stops in Mexico, the Caribbean, Portugal, and the United States; Chapter 5), mid-nineteenth-century Brazil (Chapter 8), and a concluding essay on the twentieth-century historiography of sixteenth-century Mexico (Chapter 10). In terms of the "envisioned others,"

six chapters focus on blackness and the African Atlantic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8), two on Native Americans (6, 10), one on nationalism and mestisaje (7), and one on Spaniards (9). Most of the chapters (9 out of 11) are by art historians, complemented by contributions from Romance Languages and History. But regardless of discipline, all papers engage with the records of visual culture; the intersection of difference and visuality is the central project of the book. As editor Pamela Patton writes in her introduction, "the authors represented here share two common concerns: first, their recognition of the fundamental visibility, indeed visuality, of racial difference as it was conceived and represented within the wider Iberian world, and second, their awareness of the committed preoccupation with race that was characteristic of the peoples who coincided there" (2).

But if all the chapters engage with visual records, they differ widely in their engagement with the category of "race," and so it is quite appropriate that the book's subtitle names Race, Color, and the Visual. Even the authors who embrace race as an analytic category recognize that, when dealing with ideas and images from before the eighteenth century, it is at best a useful fiction. "Whether this focus on the visibility of the Other, as expressed in the very different times and places that are treated in these chapters, should consistently be understood as 'racial' in the modern sense is well worth asking...The term's use as a broader classificatory concept for discrete groups of human peoples arose only the eighteenth century...Yet in the present context, a case can be made for a more circumscribed use of the term 'race,' as it is employed by many authors collected here: as referring to a systematic, collective drive to classify and distinguish between discrete groups of human beings within a society and especially, as Margaret Greer, Walter Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan have put it, the 'discursive classification of the chain of human beings, their distance from the ideal model,' that often accompanies this" (Patton, 5-6)."The use of the term 'race' in the context of colonial Latin America remains a fraught issue that has undergone vigorous debate over the past few decades. 'Race' is often seen as an anachronism that carries the baggage of North American perceptions and attitudes of the twenty-first century, thus obscuring the historical particularities of identity construction in colonial Latin America...While I agree that 'race' is not calibrated to a colonial Latin American historical conception of the term, I use it in this essay to add nuance to the way that we contemplate race in the twenty-first century" (Ananda Cohen Suarez, 187). Perhaps the book's strongest assertion of "race" as a useful category is by Charlene Villaseñor Black: "Even the most cursory perusal of viceregal art in the Americas and its historiography reveals that race is an unavoidable category of analysis" (302).

One explanation for the emergence of "race" as a key category in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries places it in the context of the collapse of the ancien régime's mosaic of social orders and privileges, which were replaced by revolutionary images of a unified national citizenry, all of whose members were subject to the same, singular system of laws: "As old political orders based on social estates, hereditary privileges, and religion came tumbling down and new social formations emerged with foundations built on the principles of citizenship, natural rights, and secular political authority, white European males located in science (of race and sex) the ideological justification to prevent women, slaves, and non-Europeans from sharing in their newly acquired political rights." [1] I find this proposed history productive, because it helps make sense of, and emphasize, the confused and contradictory tangle of categories and theories that were used to explain human difference in the ancien régime Atlantic world. Consider the very term raza (the cognate in Spanish for the English word "race"), as defined in Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco's 1611 Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. The first monolingual dictionary of Spanish, it presents a complex arc of raza-terms, which move from horses, to textiles, to humans:

It may seem easy to assume that in this last definition the "raza of Muslim or Jew" can be easily equated with the biological racism we know today. Indeed, Covarrubias' definition has been quoted in three influential publications on race in early modern Spain, all cited in the bibliography of Envisioning Others. But in all of these publications, the description of raza as a textile imperfection is strategically edited out, making Covarribuas' discussion far less alien and far more palatable to our modern assumptions about race and ancestry: "The breed of thoroughbred horses, which are branded with an iron so they can be known…Race in [human lineages] is understood pejoratively, as having some Moorish or Jewish race." [3]

But this subtle ellipsis, which seamlessly unites horses and humans, reveals more about our own prejudices than it does about the contours of raza in early modern Iberia. Indeed, paying attention to the material-visual implications of raza as a textile flaw is actually quite revealing for understanding raza's connection to the soul, sin, and the hardest aspect of "purity of blood" statues for twenty-first-century scholars to deal with (which means it is usually ignored): that having Protestant parents could compromise blood purity as easily as Jewish or Muslim ones (although, in all cases, only for four generations, the span of living memory). For example, sometime in Mexico City during the second half of the sixteenth century, Fernán González de Eslava wrote a religious play called The Divine Textile Mill. It contains this fascinating bit of dialogue:

At the same time, across the Atlantic, the same imagery linking raza, cloth, the soul, and sin was being used in the Castilian town of Ávila. On November 16, 1568 the mystic Baltasar Álvarez wrote that "Our spiritual life is like a rich cloth of very fine brocade...it is not a small flaw in such cloth to have a crude mix of thick thread, nor is a raza basta [rough thread] a small detriment in a great refino [fine cloth from Segovia]..." [5]

All of which is to say that the parts I found especially interesting in Envisioning Others were those that delved into--or at least made the reader aware of--strange and surprising categories and concepts that attempted to name and control difference. Not a genealogy of race, then, but the plurality of theories that the invention of race attempted to tame and displace. And so although Villaseñor Black begins her essay on the relevance of "race" as a category, most of her text is devoted to a historiography of alternative terms that twentieth-century scholars recovered from, or invented about, the sixteenth-century past: mestizo, tequitqui, and (comparatively, across the Atlantic), mudéjar. Moving backwards through the volume, Matilde Mateo begins her essay in Chapter 9 by noting the difficulties of translating the first two words of her target book's title, Invariantes castizos, into English. She decided on Racial Constraints, although later in the essay we get a glimpse of how complex, even in the middle of the twentieth century, the vocabulary of difference could be: "Although Chueca did not thematize the issue of national identity and race as such, it permeates his whole essay through the concept of castizo...there were important thinkers, such as Ortega y Gasset, who declared that castizo was the substance of race and that the most influential encyclopedia of the times considered raza a type of casta" (289). Ilona Katzew begins Chapter 5 with a detailed and extremely useful overview of the many different competing theories about difference that existed in the early modern world: skin color, for example, could be shaped by climate, constellations, the "temperament of the land," and even the thoughts in the mind of a pregnant mother; and in many theories bodily traits were not fixed for life, but could change over time (leading some post-independence writers in the United States to imagine a "spontaneous whitening" of the nation's black population). In Chapter 4 and 2, both Larissa Brewer-García and Erin Kathleen Rowe channel Marshall Sahlins' "Colors and Cultures" to reveal that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century understandings of "black" were not limited to simple chroma, but that surface sheen and reflectivity, a "difference in radiance" (136) or "dazzling blackness" (77) were also central to period evaluations of color: "esthetic theories of color and light could transgress the standard binary through an awareness of the visual impact of light on color" (78). [6] Finally, in Chapter 1 Elisa A. Foster reveals that many so-called Black Madonnas in Iberia and Spain were originally pale-skinned; their darkening occurred not through candle smoke (as is often claimed), but by the intentional application of dark paint. This strategy was not mean to evoke Africa, but the patina of age: "the application of paint layers indicated a desire to 'keep up appearances' of a now dark--read ancient--Marian image" (30). Foster also reveals a key detail of terminology that should be developed further in future research. Although dark-skinned Marian images are referred to as Black Madonnas in English and Vierges noires in French, in Spanish the key color category is not negra, but morena (not 'black,' but 'brown'). What, then, were the historical and social contexts in which the very category of a Black Madonna emerged in French and English, and when did this category come to dominate a scholarly literature on Iberian images like the Madonna of Montserrat, still referred to as "La Moreneta"?



1. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, "New World, New Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Invention of Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish America, 1600-1650," The American Historical Review 104, no. 1 (1999): 33-68, at 66. Note that Cañizares-Esguerra's essay argues for a deeper, "colonial" genealogy of race.

2. "RAZA, en la casta de cauallos castizos, a los quales señalan co[n] hierro para q[ue] sean conocidos. Raza en el paño, la hilaza q[ue] difere[n]cia de los demas hilos de la trama. Parece auerse dicho quasi Reaza, porq[ue] aza en lengua Toscana vale hilo, y la raza en el paño sobrepuesto desigual. Raza en los linages se toma en mala parte, como tener alguna raza de Moro, o Iudio." Sebastian de Covarrubias Orozco, Tesoro en la lengua castellana o española (Madrid: Luis Sanchez, 1611), second foliation, 3r.

3. Margaret R. Greer, Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan, "Introduction," in Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires, ed. Margaret R. Greer, Walter D Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1-24, at 12, ellipsis in the original. See also David Nirenberg, "Race and the Middle Ages: The Case of Spain and Its Jews," in Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires, ed. Margaret R. Greer, Walter D Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 71-87, at 79; David Nirenberg, "Was There Race Before Modernity? The Example of 'Jewish' Blood in Late Medieval Spain," in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Zeigler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 232-264, at 251.

4. "LETRADO. Pues decidme ¿de qué modo vino Dios a tener lana? PENITENCIA. Con una invención galana: haciendo paño de lodo, que es nuestra Natura Humana. LETRADO. Admirable fue la traza con que lo trazó el Divino. PENITENCIA. De esta tela el mal nos vino, porque en fin cayó la raza. LETRADO. ¿Con qué raza se dañó paño de tanta excelencia? PENITENCIA. Con raza de inobediencia, cuanto el mando quebrantó de la Suma Providencia. LETRADO. Y acá qué culpa tenemos de lo que no cometimos? PENITENCIA. En Adán todos caímos, y con la raza nacemos de los padres que tuvimos." Fernán González de Eslava, Coloquios espirituales y sacramentales, Tomo I (Mexico: Editorial Porrua, 1958), 31.

5. "...nuestra vida espiritual es como una rica tela de brocado muy fino; y como no es pequeño mal en ella una vil mezcla de hilo grosero, ni pequeño detrimento en un alto refino una raza basta, así no es pequeño daño la mezcla de nuestros propios pensamientos, palabras, y obras, que pegamos á los que Nuestro Señor nos inspira..." Luis de la Puente, Vida del V. P. Baltasar Álvarez (Madrid: La Viuda e Hijo de Aguado, 1880), 420-21.

6. Marshall Sahlins, "Colors and Cultures," Semiotica 15, 1 (1975): 1-22.

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