Singing Black Pride in the Renaissance. Agency and communitarian feelings of enslaved people, from poetry and theatre to the song cycle of 'canzoni moresche' (16th century)


Cultural history often emphasizes the notion of agency when considering African slavery in America. In sociocognitive theory, "agency" describes individual conduct within its social context, involving dynamic interactions, active thinking, and consequent action. For enslaved people from Africa, agency was a prerequisite for defending one's dignity and expressing one's claims. This paper aims to reconstruct indirect yet illustrative accounts of "black slaves"' agency, not in America but in early modern Europe, researching poetry and theatre of that time, and showing how this agency expanded locally, as exemplified in a 16th-century song cycle from Naples, the so-called "canzoni moresche" ("black songs"). About 1470, in Florence, Alessandro Braccesi created the character of an African domestic servant proudly expressing her agency. Although ignored in studies of the African diaspora, Braccesi's sonnet stands as a prototype for analogous situations in Iberian comedies, first in Portugal (where the slave's protests are addressed to their masters) and then in Spain (where the slave's attack on the white maid is supported by her mistress's solidarity). In 16th-century Naples, where the song cycle of 'canzoni moresche' was composed in the early '40s, these kinds of claims went even further. A repertoire scarcely studied in depth and often misinterpreted, the 'moresche' songs were sung partly in Kanuri, the African language spoken in the Bornu empire and surrounding areas from where African persons were deported to Naples. «Burnoguallà!» (variant: «Bernagua[l]là!»), an exclamation of ethnic pride, is often uttered by Giorgio, the story's protagonist: partly in Kanuri, partly in Arabic, it fiercely declares his Bornu provenance. The interjection "Guallà!" ('I swear in Allah') is especially significant, as well as the songs' lyrics in general, in revealing inter-ethnic and transcultural social dynamics among Africans in Naples, confirming or enriching other written sources; while syncopated melodies and metric modulations show the curiosity of Italian composers for African music, and their efforts to imitate it.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22804250v12i1p109

Keywords: Canzoni moresche; African diaspora; African languages; Renaissance music; Iberian theatre; "literatura de cordel"

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