Of the nations of Europe, Italy—a peninsula that juts south into the Mediterranean Sea—is one of the closest to Africa. From African students in ancient Rome to the growth of Afro-Italian communities in the twenty-first century, Italy has long maintained ties of trade, conquest, colonization, and immigration with Africa, especially the North African countries that lie close cross the Mediterranean.Ancient ConnectionsIn Latin, the name Africa referred to the region around the city of Carthage in Tunisia and to Algeria. The first recorded African migration to the Italian peninsula...
Of the nations of Europe, Italy—a peninsula that juts south into the Mediterranean Sea—is one of the closest to Africa. From African students in ancient Rome to the growth of Afro-Italian communities in the twenty-first century, Italy has long maintained ties of trade, conquest, colonization, and immigration with Africa, especially the North African countries that lie close cross the Mediterranean.Ancient ConnectionsIn Latin, the name Africa referred to the region around the city of Carthage in Tunisia and to Algeria. The first recorded African migration to the Italian peninsula came after the Romans conquered and destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C.E. Among the 50,000 Africans brought to Rome as slaves by victorious Roman general Scipio Africanus Minor was probably Terence (190–159 B.C.E.), who went on to write such comic plays as Andria and Hecyra. Terence's talent not only won him his freedom but brought him lasting fame in Latin literature. But because Roman culture readily absorbed many foreign peoples and customs, it is hard to determine the ethnic or racial origins of individuals mentioned in Roman texts; often the only clue is the name or region of birth. Still, it seems clear that during ancient times there was a constant African presence in Rome and throughout southern and central Italy.North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans (called Aethiopes in Latin) went to Italy both as enslaved prisoners of war and as free men and women. Their ranks included two men who became Roman emperors, Septimius Severus, a native of Leptis Magna in present-day Libya, and Marcus Opellius Macrinus. Countless craftsmen and traders from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa also made the journey. Ivory, wood, corn, fowls, wild animals, and spices were some of the African goods carried to Rome in ships often manned by Africans from Egypt. Animal trainers from Ethiopia were employed in Roman circuses, and black flutists were in great demand for private and public festivities.By the fourth century c.e., so many African students lived in Rome that a law was passed that called for those who were too often seen at the theater to be sent home. One student from the Berber town of Tagaste in present-day Algeria was Augustine (354–430 C.E.), who came to Rome to study and seek employment as a teacher. He moved to Milan, where he developed his Christian philosophy; later he was made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Cyprian, Tertullian, and Saint Maurice are other early African Christians. Saint Maurice, whose cult is still alive in Northern Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, was an African general in the Roman legions who refused to kill fellow Christians—probably in 287 C.E.—and was executed with most of his soldiers by Emperor Maximian.Middle Ages and RenaissanceAfter the fall of the Roman Empire, records of the African presence in Italy appear mainly in the Italian island of Sicily, which came under both Muslim and Norman rule. The Norman rulers called themselves “kings of Africa,” referring to the Roman province of Tunisia and eastern Algeria. They traded with North Africa, received tribute, and drafted soldiers. In 1154 the North African scientist, poet, and geographer al-Idrisi finished writing a monumental geography of the known world and submitted it, along with a world map engraved on a 300-pound silver plate, to Roger II, king of Sicily, who had commissioned it. Al-Idrisi's geography was the most extensive and informative medieval geographical work, including firsthand accounts of North and Central Africa. Another notable African in Sicily was Johannes Morus. Born in Sicily, probably as a Muslim slave, he became a member of the household of the German Emperor Frederick II and the governor of Sicily under King Manfred. A member of the military class of the Saracens, Sicily's North African rulers, Johannes was very powerful and even challenged the authority of his king, an act that led to his assassination by fellow Saracens.Frederick II conquered Sicily in 1222 and sent Saracens to a Muslim military colony at Lucera in the Apulia region of southern Italy. Frederick selected his bodyguards from among these Saracens, and “dark-skinned Aethiopes” are reported to have guarded his treasures when he went back to Germany in 1231. In his triumphal retinue marched many people of African descent, including his young black servants and Saracen women and girls. The idea of Africans parading after great men seems to have originated in Asia, and in copying it Frederick revived a custom of using blacks that Italian nobles would follow during the Renaissance. Muslim rulers often donated slaves from Africa to Renaissance noblemen, and mori neri (black Moors) were found in courts and wealthy households in Venice, Florence, and Rome. The paintings of artists Paolo Veronese and Gian Battista Tiepolo show Africans as house servants or as part of the typical background of the nobility. Africans also appeared in the literature of the Italian Renaissance. Masuccio Salernitano's Novellino (1475) included several erotic plots with African characters. Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommiti (1566), which first told the story of the Moor of Venice, was Shakespeare's source for his play Othello. The Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino wrote the sonnet “La bella schiava” (The Beautiful Slave Woman, 1614).Titian, an artist of the Italian Renaissance, painted this portrait of Laura de Dianti around 1523. The work begins the convention of depicting members of the nobility with young African servants. Alinari/Art ResourceAt the same time, interest in Africa emerged in travel writing and geographic descriptions of the continent, such as Giodevanni Cavazzi's account of his travels to the Kongo kingdom and Angola. Most influential was the work of Leo Africanus, published in 1550 in Venice—it included a description of Tombouctou, Mali (Timbuktu) and the Sub-Saharan empires of Mali and Bornu. Leo Africanus was born al-Hassan ibn Muhammad in Granada, Spain, and given as a slave to Pope Leo X, who baptized him and set him up as an African historian and teacher of Arabic.Africans came to Renaissance Italy as slaves, arriving in ports such as Genoa and Naples. They also came as scholars and diplomats, mainly to Rome and Venice. African communities developed in Venice and Naples in the sixteenth century. After 1578 Naples had an organized body of both secular and religious members who arranged the baptism of slaves and protected them against harsh treatment. From 1605 to the next century, the Jesuits maintained a congregation that freed African slaves and exchanged them for Christian slaves held in North Africa. Some freed slaves worked as language teachers for Jesuit missionaries. The first black African to become a Roman Catholic saint was born into a family of slaves in Sicily in 1526. Benedetto il Moro was granted freedom at the age of ten. At twenty-one he joined a community of hermits, among whom he led an ascetic life. He became known as a miraculous healer, known for his piety, and was made a saint in 1807.The Renaissance also saw increased contact between Italy and the East African land of Ethiopia. As early as 1395 an Ethiopian messenger witnessed the coronation of Giovanni Galeazzo Visconti as duke of Milan. In 1402 Ethiopian ambassadors were recorded in Venice, carrying “leopards and aromatic herbs.” Ethiopians appear in many Vatican documents, especially after 1481, when Pope Sixtus IV turned the church of Santo Stefano Maggiore into an Ethiopian church named Santo Stefano degli Abissini; its convent was a refuge for Ethiopian pilgrims. Santo Stefano became a cultural and religious center that produced the first book printed in an Ethiopian language—Psalterium Ethiopicum, 1513—and, through the work of Abba Tesfa Sion, an Ethiopian New Testament and an Ethiopian missal (1549). Santo Stefano helped promote the study of Ethiopian language and culture, especially through the scholarship of Abba Gregory, who lived there from 1649 to 1652.In the wake of Portuguese exploration of the African coastline, Rome and the Vatican played a crucial role in the relationship between Europe and Africa. The expansion of Christianity to Africa brought momentous developments in the history of the faith. One development was that converted Christian rulers in Africa sought direct relationships with the pope. The Kongo kingdom, for example, sent several ambassadors to Rome. In 1512 King Afonso sent his son Henry, who later became bishop of Utica and the Kongo, and in 1539 two further members of the Kongo royal family went to Rome to study church buildings and Renaissance culture. A monument in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome commemorates another Kongo embassy, that of Antonio Manuel de Vunda, who died in Rome in 1608; a wall painting in the Vatican Library shows Pope Paul V visiting de Vunda on his deathbed. After de Vunda's embassy, a new era in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Africa began with the institution of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fidei, which promoted conversion to Christianity and coordinated missionary endeavors.Modern ItalyDuring the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Italian Catholic institutions were active mainly in such African Muslim lands as Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Several Africans trained for the priesthood in Rome. One of them, the Ethiopian Tobia, was made a bishop and translated a catechism into Ethiopian. Catholic institutions such as the Collegio de Mori in Naples and the Istituto Mazza in Verona were active in the larger movement for the emancipation from slavery, working to emancipate and educate young Africans. Missionaries sent ransomed children to monasteries all over Italy. One such child, Daniel Sorur Pharim Den, arrived at the Istituto Mazza from Sudan in 1876. After continuing his studies in Rome and Beirut, he became a priest in Cairo in 1887. A popular speaker, he wrote pamphlets in Italian, arguing for the need to fight the Trans-Saharan and Red Sea Slave Trade, and was the only African active in the antislavery movement of Cardinal Lavigerie, archbishop of Algiers.After the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, Italy embarked on a program of colonialism. In the next four decades, Italy established protectorates and colonies in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya. Italian propagandists for colonization encouraged the takeover of Ethiopia, drawing on both racist theories of African inferiority and on the allure of the exotic. They found a symbol in Taitu, Ethiopia's queen after 1883. After the Ethiopian king Menelik defeated the Italians at Adwa in 1896, however, leftist anticolonialists alarmed the government with demonstrations. In Rome, protesters cheered for Menelik, while police and protestors clashed in Milan and protesters in Pavia uprooted train tracks to prevent soldiers from joining their battalions.Colonialism gained new energy from the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century. The language of patriotism often drew on racial stereotypes, as in “Faccetta nera” (Pretty Little Black Face), the title song for Benito Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935–1936, during the last phase of the Scramble for Africa. Italian aggression in Ethiopia was a violent denial of black independence and of the Christian nation's long history. It provoked outrage among opponents of colonialism, bringing Africa to the center of world politics on the eve of World War II (1939–1945).After the war Somalia maintained cooperative relations with Italy. Many Ethiopians and Somalis sought education in Italy up to the 1960s. Since the 1960s African immigrants, mainly from North Africa, have come to Italy either to seek employment or to move on to France and Germany. An estimated two million African immigrants have settled in Italy since the 1980s, many of them illegally, facing precarious economic and social conditions. This new wave of immigration has changed Italian cities—African communities have grown in large cities such as Milan, Rome, and Turin. Catholic and Muslim associations act as social and cultural centers for the immigrants, and the African population is slowly making itself heard through labor unions and the forming of a political agenda that focuses on the recognition of legal immigrant status and the extension of civil rights to alien residents.See also Christianity, African: An Overview; Explorers in Africa Before 1500; Roman Africa: An Interpretation.
Reference Entry. 1996 words. Illustrated.
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