Torso of a Turk

In the Palazzo Bragadin, Gwinnett is temporarily distracted from the Tiepolo ceiling. ”He was on the other side of the room, in front of a highly coloured piece of Venetian eighteenth-century sculpture, torso of a Turk.  Gwinnett was examining the elaborate folds of the marble turban.” [TK 118/111]

At first we were at a complete loss to identify the kind of sculpture Gwinnett might have been examining, as figurative marble sculpture of eighteenth-century Venetian production seems barely in evidence, let alone polychrome marble figures of Turks.  But it occurs to us that this may be a case in which Powell conflated memories of his personal visits to Venice with his art- historical awareness of the long and complicated relationship of the Venetian and Ottoman empires.

As a visitor to Venice, Powell would have seen innumerable figures of the type called blackamoors, which started appearing in the eighteenth century and proliferated up until the twentieth.  These consisted of sculpted figures, or figurines, depicting a turbaned black-skinned man of unspecified origin in the pose of a servant or guardian.  These blackamoor figures might be polychrome marble, though more often are carved of wood or plaster, painted colorfully and sometimes encrusted with jewels to depict  the costumed servant of a rich household.

Blackamoors Italian, eighteenth century polychrome wood, 58 H x 16.5 W x 17.5 in.D for sale on 1stdibs.com (accessed 9/25/16)

Blackamoors
Italian, eighteenth century
polychrome wood, 58 H x 16.5 W x 17.5 in.D
for sale on 1stdibs.com (accessed 9/25/16)

Rather than depicting a particular ethnicity, the blackamoor figure is regarded by historians as an expression of Eurocentrism in general, orientalism in particular, and a tendency to regard all non-Europeans as the exotic “other.”  Powell himself may have succumbed to this tendency when he remembered one or another blackmoor sculpture from his travels and then recast this memory into the marble-turbanned Turk that captures Gwinnett’s attention.

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