Reading Group: Johnson

Join us for our final reading group of 2018 as we frame our conversation around the issue of complexion and skin in the early modern period.

We welcome Professor Carina L. Johnson (Pitzer) to our Renaissance Skin Reading Group for a discussion of her essay 'Naming the “Turk” and the “Moor”: praxis and the editions of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Books of Oriental Travel'.

The essay explores the deployment of complexion in representations of the Ottoman Empire and its peoples. Prints gained indexical as well as aesthetic and market value when they were hand-coloured and, in the sixteenth century, colourists conveyed ethnographic information through specific colourations. An examination of multiple copies and editions of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Books of Oriental Travel, as well as other hand-coloured prints, reveals the existence of some established colour conventions and the fluidity of other colourations of complexion and costume. This mix of individuated and standardised ethnography reveals that, in a confessionalising central European milieu, understandings of the Ottoman Empire also contributed to an evolving utilisation of complexion as a collective identity marker.

Johnson's essay is part of a work in progress exploring Matters of Appearance, the early modern cultural identity markers employed to determine group identities or membership in a natio or gens prior to the Enlightenment concept of biological race. In the fifteenth century, these heritable markers could be longstanding attributes of natio such as language, costume, and blood; in the sixteenth century, former individual markers such as physiognomy and complexion began to be deployed in group characterisations. Rather than a focus on prescriptive texts, this project interrogates the praxis of embodied group identity with particular attention to structures of conjunction (Marshall Sahlins).

In framing our discussion and to provide counterpoints and context to Johnson's essay, we are bringing in two additional readings.

  • Kate Lowe, 'The Black Diaspora in Europe in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, with Special Reference to German-Speaking Areas' in Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact 1250-1914, edited by Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann (Berghahn, 2013), pp. 38-56. This provides an overview of the range of real and imagined locations of ‘Black’ Africans in central Europe during this time period.
  • Bronwen Wilson, 'Chapter 2: Costume and the Boundaries of Bodies' in The World in Venice: Print, the City and Early Modern Identity (Toronto, 2005), pp. 70-132, 291-309. This considers the ordering and ethnographic functions of the costume book and costume.

This is an informal and friendly discussion lasting about 90 minutes, and then followed by refreshments.

The event is open to participants from any discipline and at any stage of study. To attend, please register by emailing the team (see Contact page). The readings will be circulated in advance, once registered. We encourage anyone to bring materials, images, anecdotes, and ideas for discussion. There is no deadline to register but attendance will be guaranteed on a first-come first-served basis.

Carina L. Johnson is professor of history at Pitzer College and extended faculty at Claremont Graduate University. She is author of Cultural Hierarchy in Sixteenth-Century Europe: The Ottomans and Mexicans (2011) and co-editor of Archeologies of Confession: Writing the German Reformation, 1517-2017 (2017).

Image: Section of Nicolas de Nicolay, Vier Bucher Von de Raisz vnd Schiffart in die Turckey... (Antwerp: Wilhelm Silvius, 1576). Heidelberg University Library, A 3542 RES, title page. CC-BY-SA 3.0