A Racist Brooch? The Venetian origins of a royal jewel

Catherine Kovesi   University of Melbourne

In reportage of Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace and the arrival of Meghan Markle and her fiancé Prince Harry, worldwide news focused on the item of jewellery worn by Princess Michael of Kent. Immediately branded as a ‘racist’ piece of jewellery in so-called ‘blackamoor’ style, many of these reports were also at pains to emphasise Princess Michael’s father’s association with the SS and to portray this fashion statement as a blatant affront to Harry’s choice of bride, a woman of part African-American heritage. Princess Michael hastily apologized for wearing the piece and said she would not wear it again. But this explosion of journalistic outrage obscures a much more interesting story  ……     Whilst of course we cannot know what motivated Princess Michael to select this particular item from her jewellery collection, and what her views towards Meghan Markle might be, what was obvious to me at first glance was that the Princess was wearing an item of jewellery with deep significance made famous in the last century by one of Venice’s premier jewellers, the Gioelleria Nardi. Though other prominent Venetian jewelers such as Codognato also began creating so-called Moretto jewels in the 1930s, it was the brooches made by Giulio Nardi, grandfather of the current proprietor Alberto Nardi, which became one of the most emblematic souvenirs purchased by the city’s high-end resident and visiting consumers.

Princess Grace of Monaco wearing a Nardi moretto

Paula Ruffo di Calabria, Queen consort of Belgium, wearing a moretto brooch.

Though born in Florence, Giulio Nardi fell in love with Venice: “My love for this city of water and light is so intense”, he declared, “that I hope my jewels are able to bring Venice to the world.” And indeed they did. Princess Grace of Monaco, Queen Paola of Belgium, Ingrid Bergman, Peggy Guggenheim, and Elizabeth Taylor were some of the more prominent wearers of the moretto, a brooch which continues to be sold to clients of all races and religious persuasions from throughout the world who visit Nardi’s famed store. A spectacular example of the brooch, made almost entirely of diamonds and entitled ‘Albero della Vita’, graces the cover of the substantial volume about this celebrated jewelery house, Nardi – Venetian Souvenirs written by Nicholas Foulkes, and published by Assouline in 2012.

Giulio Nardi, ‘Moretto Albero della Vita’, 18kt gold and diamonds, Nardi collection.

The Telegraph’s reportage correctly identified Princess Michael’s jewel as being of Venetian heritage but mistakenly identified is as being a depiction of “exotic Africans” who supposedly inspired these jewels. Others have claimed with disgust that this jewelry is clearly born out of ‘slave heritage’. Speaking to Alberto Nardi hours after the scandal broke, it became apparent that he feels increasingly cornered by the legacy of this piece of jewellery, and is both frustrated by, and acutely aware of, the often vocal views of a select few, especially in the post-colonial Anglo-Saxon world, towards his jewels. Above all, he told me, he is concerned simply with aesthetics and making things of beauty. He has never viewed his family business’s moretto jewels with anything other than an aesthete’s eye as beautiful pieces, with faces now crafted from sustainable water buffalo horn sourced from Borneo, and depicting an idealized Moor – not a person of African descent – which pays playful spirited homage to Venice’s long association with its oriental trading partners from the middle eastern world. Such jewels in fact have nothing whatsoever to do with Africa but rather play both with a history of real Venetian experience with traders and ambassadors from the middle east over many centuries and with the imagined landscapes and inhabitants of the Orient.

 

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, Padua, 1495-1505, in the J. Paul Getty Museum

The moretto pieces depict above all a princely figure – not one in slavish servitude – and often bear resemblance to depictions of the legendary Balthazar, one of the three Magi, or Wise Men, who bring the Christ child gifts from an unspecified Orient. In this respect, Princess Michael’s choice of a Moretto as a jewel to wear to a Christmas  lunch could be seen as quite apposite in the context of Christian iconography of the Magi. Moretti do, however, obviously profit from a depiction of an idealized middle eastern prince as the exoticised ‘other’ and in this vein form part of the long tradition of ‘orientalism’ in the west; a figure of no place and every place at one and the same time, fulfilling Western fantasies.

Giovanni Mansueti, Episodes from the Life of St Mark, formerly in the Scuola di San Marco, now in the Accademia delle Gallerie, Venice.

Such visions of the oriental ‘other’ might be more problematic in any country and city other than Venice, however, where the influence of the near orient is visible everywhere, from the architecture of the Ducal Palace and all of the city’s palazzi, to the clothing once worn by its patrician class, and resulting from its trade empire based on carpets, spices, textiles, and dyes brought from the east for centuries, and traded further west to the city’s great profit. Above all, this deeply embedded orientalism is visible in the city’s art, in paintings by Carpaccio, Cima da Conegliano, Giovanni Mansueti, Giovanni Bellini, Veronese and others. In many of these images the Moor is depicted in honest professions in the city, as gondolieri, as servants at table, as traders in the campi of the city, as observers of city life, or as honoured guests at various State occasions. The moretto in such a context is arguably as Venetian as Marco Polo. And this emblematic Venetian jewel is held in great esteem and affection by Venetians.

Alberto Nardi, Mia Collection, 18kt white gold, silver ‘Veneziano’ ring with diamonds.

To bring attention back to the beauty of his pieces rather than to the increasing refrain that the moretto might be offensively ‘racist’, Nardi has begun in recent years to produce moretti of the same design, but with faces crafted of other precious jewels and materials – faces of turquoise, of ruby, of soft pinks and greens. Nardi’s emphasis is on the beauty of the object, not its supposed racial origins. But he worries that even this gesture plays further into views that the moretto, in and of itself, is a racist object that now needs to be sanitized and de-coloured. Nardi is a man of deep and educated sensibilities, crucially aware of the views of his clientele but also conscious of his city’s long multi-cultural heritage.

Regardless of one’s views of the Nardi moretto, why one of his brooches should cause such a stir when worn to a private lunch in December 2017 is a little puzzling. Gioelleria Nardi participated in the Venice Luxus Pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale, with examples of the moretto on prominent display as soon as visitors entered the pavilion. Yet, of the 615,000 visitors to the Venice Biennale this year, not one made a comment about the supposed racism of such a display. And indeed Alberto Nardi told me that not one person has ever entered his shop, in the many years in which he has been its proprietor, to say that his jewellery has caused them offence. Quite the contrary. Several years ago Whoopi Goldberg bought a Nardi moretto brooch as a sign of ‘black pride’.

Whilst consumption and sartorial display always carry signs and codes, with the potency of these signs in direct proportion to the power and status of those displaying them, we need to be aware of the broader and more complex histories contained within a singular item of jewelery before jumping to conclusions about its signification. In the sartorial signs of recent days in Britain, more troubling perhaps is the vision of a woman wearing a Ralph & Russo dress costing a reputed 65,000 euros (£56,000) in her official engagement photos designed for wide dissemination – a price almost double that of average annual salaries in the UK. Instead the international press has rushed to condemn a small piece of jewelry with a complex, subtle, and indeed beautiful, history worn by an established royal individual to a private family event who now, rather sadly, feels she can never wear it again.

 

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