If you’re taking a stroll in the downtown district of Belém, located by the river Tagus in the coastal city of Lisbon, the largest city and the capital of Portugal, and home to many of Portugal’s landmarks and monuments, make sure you drop by an iconic spot in this area which is the “Berardo Collection Museum”. The internationally acclaimed museum can be found at Cultural Centre of Belém, and it holds a collection of over 1000 works of art both on permanent display and temporary exhibitions. In this museum a certain piece of art in particular is what we would like to shed the light on and analyze in order to reveal some facts that might be hidden from the world, yet they have been vividly illustrated in that painting.
That painting is none other than “Chafariz D’El Rey”, which translates from Portuguese into “The King’s Fountain”. The oil painting is from the 16th century, 1570-1580 to be more precise; however, the Flemish painter who created this rather intriguing piece remains anonymous till the day. The painting depicts the oldest district in Lisbon, the Alfama district. The name “Alfama” is derived from the Arabic word “Al hamma”, which means, hot fountains or baths.
If you think about how most European films, writings and other forms of art portray Africans in Medieval Europe, they hardly feature any at all –as if they were eliminated on purpose-, and if they were present they would probably be portrayed as slaves and nothing else. The King’s Fountain painting however, paints a more truthful image of the situation back then, all you need is a pair of good eyes to notice those signs, a reasonable mind that puts two and two together, and you’ll immediately realize how Renaissance Lisbon had the highest percentage of black people in Europe (about 20%), varying in status from slaves to knights which is clearly evident in the painting (30% of the people in the painting are Africans).
Let’s start off by taking a general look over the painting, and see what things would strike you as interesting or differs from the common knowledge, and afterwards we will take a closer look on those parts.
With an impressive range of over one hundred and fifty human figures and six types of animals, the painter recorded here a busy urban scene in Lisbon that represents how the ever day life went about back then. There is so much going on that you simply can’t take it all in at one glance. Rather, you need to take your time looking, observing, noticing and contemplating. One thing is obvious though, and that is how both black and white people from a wide range of social strata co-existed at this time and place.
If we zoom in below the mid right of the image, we’ll see a striking African personality striding on horseback. This man is identified as João de SáPanasco (1524 – 1567), who was gradually promoted from court jester to eventually becoming a knight of the prestigious order of Saint James, which is evident from the heraldry of the order of Santiago embroidered on his cloak. He was awarded that honour by the king in 1535, when he was part of the victorious military campaign over the Turks.
In front of the Afro-Portuguese horse rider, we can see two other African men, who seem to be dressed formally and rather nobly, and not only is their dress code an indicator of their status, but also the swords that they both carry show that they are of high rankings among the society.
The close up on the left shows another African horse rider, and in front of him an African who appears to be ranked as a guard, which is apparent from the hat that he wears and the spear that he bears.
Africans on horses really isn’t that strange of a sight when we already know that at that time and even long before, horses were being used by many African societies and kingdoms such as; the Mossi Empire (the modern day Burkina Faso) [11th century – 1896], the Kingdom of Songhai (the modern day central Mai , the Niger and Nigeria) [15th – 16th century], the Empire of Mali [1230 – 1670], the Kanem-Bornu Empire (the modern day Chad and Nigeria) [700 – 1900 AD] and the Kingdom of Axum ( the modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea)[100 – 940 AD].
Another noticeable thing in the painting which demonstrates human diversity at that time in this Lisbon square is that we see white people and African people in both genders, men and women and in different ages too, for along with the adults, there are African children as well as white children playing around in the square.
The painting also sort of debunks another theory, which is when modern films give the impression that at the time, the poorest white person was richer than a middle class or a noble African. What we see here is a man and a woman (in different locations) who are of the poor working levels, and they are both barefoot, this only proves that the poor in Europe were the same like elsewhere, not widely literate and many couldn’t even afford to wear shoes.
The overall scene is a lively one and is diverse in actions, the main action (shown in the close up below) is people filling up those red pottery ewers that are perfectly balanced on their heads with water from the fountain (in the middle), and we see some of the people heading towards the fountain (on the far left), while others who finished the task are leaving the area (on the far right).
Moreover, if we look closer on the far left, we’ll see that the painting illustrates the trade business in the form of the boatman unloading the hay and grains from the boat as well as other vendors among the crowds. Additionally, a view on law enforcement can be witnessed where a couple of constables can be seen detaining a man.
The King’s Fountain painting still remains somewhat mysterious, and due to the mere fact that the artist is unknown, we cannot verify if this painting is truly capturing a real life scene or if it is simply a product of the artist’s imagination.
Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that Africans were wrongfully portrayed in this era, and their depiction was confined to them being nothing but slaves, which is far from the truth. Africans were long known travellers and explorers of the different lands. They settled in various places, European countries being one of those places. Naturally, generation after generation of free Africans were born and raised in those European countries, (as proven in the case of Africans living in 1570 Lisbon) making those Africans who lived there official citizens of said countries.
Preconceptions about African people are what give birth to wrong assumptions. Logically speaking though, by looking at a person and just from their skin colour or facial features, can you determine if they are local residents of a certain country or if they are mere visitors? That doesn’t really make sense now, does it? After 400 years of integration, who can tell their descendants apart?