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Hidden Historical Legacies: Fascinating & Controversial Blackamoor Cameos

Tanzy Ward

Although the word 'blackamoor' is a somewhat controversial term, the exquisite collection of African royal-like figures is an elegant and essential representation to preserve. Over time, 'blackamoor' began to describe a darker-skinned African of Moorish heritage that resided in the ancient Iberian Peninsula cities such as Mauretania and Al-Andalus. During the early Modern Period (c. the 1450s-1800s), stunning blackamoor cameos were created during the Renaissance Era. The remarkable portraits often incorporated jewelry onto the African figure, referred to as a cameo habille. Several examples of blackamoor cameos from different periods, including 19th-century Victorian Era antiques. Their high-quality craftsmanship complements the overall allure of the figures. Who were these models? Have they commissioned gifts? Little is known of many blackamoor cameos, including the artisans that created such magnificent works. Many cameo habilles are portraits of aristocrat-like Africans with detailed bejeweled accents. When dating cameos, it is essential to know that many were often re-mounted or reset in later centuries. Ancient antiquities and Renaissance styles often inspired periods such as the Victorian Era, and it was common for 19th-century cameos to resemble designs from previous ages.
(Blackamoor cameo attributed to the workshop of Italian artist Girolamo Miseroni  (1522-1584). c. 1600. Staattiche Munzammlung, Munich
(Blackamoor cameo attributed to the workshop of Italian artist Girolamo Miseroni  (1522-1584). 16th century. They are created from agate, gold, enamel, rubies, and diamonds. Many Blackamoor cameos are not attributed to any artist. Kunsthistorisches Museum (Schnitt)


(English cameo habille of an African Woman, c. 1800s. Gold setting embellished with rubies and diamonds. Artist unknown.)


Historically, blackamoor cameos are significant antiques to preserve and collect. Many are housed in national art museums throughout Europe and are a part of prized private collections. The growing interest in blackamoor cameos and other African antiques has allowed for incredible exposure to the artworks. Throughout history, the image of the Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been associated with pain, trauma, and bondage. It is refreshing to see poised and elegant pictures of Africans compared to the commonly emphasized stereotypical depictions. The cameos are often intricately embellished with multiple gemstones, many of which include bejeweled crowns on their heads. 


(Portrait of an African king in agate; cameo habille, the second half of the 16th century (enameled gold mount, 17th century. Created with agate, gold, and enamel. Cabinet des Medailles © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5).

Historically, antique cameo designs have been synonymous with Greek and Roman styles. However, some of the first cameos were Egyptian stone engravings for recording sentimental events. When collecting cameos, it is common to curate mythological figures such as the Greek Muses and scenic carvings of Roman chariot races. The portrait of an African royal figure engraved in a cameo is not as familiar as other designs and is still surrounded by mystery. While some Blackamoor cameos are based on mythological figures, many were likely created from real-life models. The intricate details, superb quality, and historical significance of Blackamoor cameos are essential to preserving. In my non-fiction historical book 'Hidden Legacies: African Presence in European Antiques, I dedicate a chapter to Blackamoor cameos and their overlooked magnificence. 


(French Cameo with an African king holding bow and quiver. 16th century. It was created from agate, gold, rubies, and diamonds. Collection of Louis XIV of France, Cabinet des Medailles)
(Vintage-modern African Cameo featuring a woman with an afro puff and necklace. In modern times, Blacamoor and African cameo reproductions are very popular and highly collected.)  


Throughout history, the portraits of royal Blackamoor figures have been overlooked and shunned from receiving critical acclaim. They each tell an important story significant to European and African history. It is essential to not only acknowledge these collectibles but also include them in educational history references. 

 Learn more insight on historical Blackamoor cameos and their significance in 'Hidden Legacies: African Presence in European Antiques' by Tanzy Ward. 

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