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Who, then, could this sitter be? His identity has long been unknown. But he can here be identified as the extraordinary Ethiopian traveller, Zaga Christ.

We are grateful to the help of Professor Alessandro Bausi and Professor Samantha Kelly for translating the Amharic script on the reverse.
This portrait by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-70) is the earliest known European portrait miniature to depict a black sitter. It is, as such, an object of great historical importance and represents a moment all too rare in the European history of the early modern period: one in which an African sitter is treated by a (female) artist in almost exactly the same terms as a European.

Black subjects are rare in western art of this date, and their appearance is usually limited to peripheries. It was not uncommon, for instance, for a wealthy aristocrat to be shown with his or her black servant, or for one of the three Magi in paintings of the Adoration of the Kings to be black.[1] But there are very few instances of black sitters being depicted as individualised people rather than generic...


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We are grateful to the help of Professor Alessandro Bausi and Professor Samantha Kelly for translating the Amharic script on the reverse.
This portrait by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-70) is the earliest known European portrait miniature to depict a black sitter. It is, as such, an object of great historical importance and represents a moment all too rare in the European history of the early modern period: one in which an African sitter is treated by a (female) artist in almost exactly the same terms as a European.

Black subjects are rare in western art of this date, and their appearance is usually limited to peripheries. It was not uncommon, for instance, for a wealthy aristocrat to be shown with his or her black servant, or for one of the three Magi in paintings of the Adoration of the Kings to be black.[1] But there are very few instances of black sitters being depicted as individualised people rather than generic types. Even in the case of portraits, the sitters are most frequently presented as exotic anomalies.

Here, however, the sitter is shown in the fashionable dress of the courts of Europe in this period. He is sober and dignified and looks calmly out at the viewer. His features are individualised and have been rendered with great sensitivity. But for the fact of his race, one would assume him to be a high-ranking courtier. The intimacy of the relationship between the sitter and the artist in this portrait is, moreover, remarkable. The reverse is inscribed twice, once in Italian and again in Ethiopic script. This latter inscription reads ‘ዥዋኘ [or ‘ዥዋፐ]፡ ጋርሶኔ፡ ፌ +’ (‘Žǝwañä [or Žǝwapä] Garsone Fe +’) and is doubtless an attempt to render the name given second in Roman script, ‘Giovanna Garzoni F. +’. The poorly-executed letterforms suggest that this was written by someone unfamiliar with Ethiopic script, most likely the artist herself.

It is perhaps thanks to Giovanna Garzoni’s own outsider status as a woman artist that she was able to produce so sympathetic a portrait of her sitter, a rare and challenging commission for any western artist. Born in Ascoli Piceno, where she also trained, Garzoni’s talent as an artist of still lifes meant that by the 1620s she had acquired a circle of influential patrons in Rome. Following periods spent in both Venice and Naples, during which time she wrote a small textbook on calligraphy (her skilful calligraphic flourishes can be seen in the inscription on the reverse of this miniature), Garzoni went to Turin to work at the court of Victor Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy (1587-1637). Little is known about this period of Garzoni’s career, so the present work provides a significant insight into the development of her style.[2] Following five years spent in Turin, she moved to Florence to work for the Medici, before settling in Rome – her life’s goal – in 1651. When she died, she left her large collection of works of art to the Accademia di San Luca, the artists’ academy in Rome, and was honoured by a monument, which still remains to this day – an astonishing achievement for a woman working in a male-dominated profession.

Who, then, could this sitter be? His identity has long been unknown. But he can here be identified as the extraordinary Ethiopian traveller, Zaga Christ (Ṣägga Krǝstos).[3] Inscriptions on the reverse of the portrait correspond with the lot number and sale price of a miniature sold with this identity in France in 1752.[4] Combined with the fact that Zaga Christ is known to have been in Turin in 1635, when and where this portrait is stated as having been painted, it is certain that this is the identity of the sitter.

The facts of Zaga Christ’s early life are unclear, but what is known for certain is that by 1632 he had arrived in Jerusalem, claiming to be the rightful King of Ethiopia. By his own account, he was the son of a deposed Ethiopian king, who had been killed in battle. Zaga Christ had fled the pursuing forces of his father’s rival to Sudan. When taking refuge there, a local king had proposed a marriage to his daughter, which Zaga Christ rejected as it would have necessitated his conversion from Ethiopian Christianity to Islam. Instead, he decided to travel to Cairo, crossing five deserts in order to get there (Zaga Christ claimed that when he dropped a parasol, the sand was so hot that he couldn’t retrieve it).[5]

Zaga Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem was effectuated by missionaries from the Catholic order of Franciscan monks and they too were responsible to Zaga Christ’s next journey: to Rome, where he stayed for the next two years. In Rome, he seems successfully to have presented himself as the Pretender to the Ethiopian throne. He intrigued observers and was even granted an audience with Pope Urban VIII, whose feet he kissed. In Rome, Zaga Christ moved ever closer to the Roman Catholicism and away from the native Christian tradition of his homeland. Through his connections to the Franciscans, Zaga Christ was introduced to a nun by the name of Caterina Massimi. The two are supposed, scandalously, to have conducted an affair, which was conducted by way of letters written in their own blood.[6]

This portrait of Zaga Christ was painted during his sojourn in Turin between the winter of 1634 and the spring of 1635. Zaga Christ had hoped to travel ultimately to England but, when passing through Venice, fell severely ill – likely with malaria. With his time in Turin mostly spent convalescing, he became a subject of great interest for the court. The Duke of Savoy himself – the ruler of Turin – sent him medicines to help him recover.

It is unknown why this portrait was painted, but it may be that Zaga Christ himself commissioned it in order to bring it with him to his next destination: France. He arrived in France later that year to find the court much preoccupied with the newly declared Franco-Spanish War, but nonetheless managed to secure an introduction to the effective Prime Minister, Cardinal Richelieu. If accounts are to be believed, Zaga Christ’s downfall was again his propensity for womanising. Reputedly, he seduced the wife of a French politician, who forced him to sign a document renouncing his love of the nun, Caterina. When the two eloped, her husband raised the alarm and they were stopped at the town of Evreux in Normandy. Following his arrest, Zaga Christ spent the remainder of his life in prison, where he died of pleurisy in 1638. It seems that, regardless of the supposed affair, his claims had been met with disbelief in France. His epitaph, now lost, is said to have read:

“Ci gît du roi d'Éthiopie

L'original..., ou la copie.

Le fut-il ? ne le fut-il pas ?

La mort a fini les débats”

[Here lies the king of Ethiopia

The original…, or the copy.

Was he? Was he not?

Death has finished the discussion].[7]


[1] P. H. D. Kaplan, ‘Italy 1490-1700’ in D. Bindman and H. L. Gates, jr. (eds.), The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition (Massachusetts and London, 5 vols., 2010-2015, iii, part 1), pp. 93-191.

[2] G. Casale, Giovanna Garzone “Insigne minatrice” 1600-1670 (Roma, 1991), cat. no. A5, pp. 19, 55.

[3] In Ethiopic, ‘Ṣägga Krǝstos’, meaning ‘gift of Christ’.

[4] Catalogue d’un Cabinet de Diverses Curiosite’s. Contenant une Collection choisie d’Estampes, de Desseins…, Les Sieurs Helle & Glomy, Paris, France, 27th November 1752 – 22nd December 1752, lot no. 505.

[5] The main published accounts of Zaga Christ’s life are: J. de Giffre de Rechac, Les estranges evenemens du voyage de Son Altesse, le serenissime prince Zaga-Christ d’Ethiopie, du grand empire des Abyssins… (Paris, 1635); E. Roger, La Terre Sainte, ov Description Topographique tres-particuliere des saints Lieux, & de la Terre de Promission… Et une Relation veritable de Zaga-Christ Prince d’Ethyopie, qui mourut a Ruel prez Paris l’an 1638… (Paris, 1664).

[6] Some recent historians claim to have found contemporary sources attesting this, see S. Aroles, ‘Zaga Christ’, in F. Hildescheimer, D. Harai (eds.), Richelieu Dictionary (Paris, 2015), pp. 371-5; S. Aroles, ‘Le plus mystérieux Personnage de l’Histoire de Rueil: Zaga Christ, Roi d’Éthiopie (Dambya, ca.1610 – Rueil, 22 avril 1638)’, in Bulletin de la Société historique de Rueil-Malmaison 35, December 2013, pp. 55-70.

[7] D. Diderot, Nouveau Dictionnaire, pour servir de Supplément aux Dictionnaires des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, par une Societé de Gens de Lettres... Tome Quatrieme (Paris, 1777), p. 689.


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500 Years of British Art