Acquisition of portrait miniature brings new narratives to the Allen's Gallery of European Art

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Acquisition of portrait miniature brings new narratives to the Allen's Gallery of European Art
Giovanna Garzoni, A portrait of the Ethiopian traveler Zaga Christ, 1635.

OBERLIN, OH.- The Allen Memorial Art Museum’s gallery of 17th- and 18th-century European art has been reimagined to reveal global stories of encounter and exchange. Central to the new installation is a significant acquisition: a portrait of the Ethiopian traveler Zaga Christ by the Italian artist Giovanna Garzoni. Made in 1635, when the two met at the court of the Duke of Savoy in Turin, Italy, Portrait of Zaga Christ is the earliest known European portrait miniature to depict a Black sitter.

“At a time when most European images of Africans reverted to stereotypes, it is striking for its sympathetic and individualized portrayal,” says Assistant Curator of European and American Alexandra Letvin. She curated the installation Mobility and Exchange, 1600–1800, which is on view through August 14, 2022.

“The acquisition of this important miniature expands the Allen’s ability to tell vital stories about race, gender, and cultural exchange in the early modern period,” said Museum Director Andria Derstine. “We are excited by the new connections and interpretations it makes possible.” The miniature was purchased by the museum from Philip Mould & Company, London, with funds donated by museum members.

Zaga Christ and Giovanna Garzoni’s lives were characterized by extensive travel across expansive geographies. Zaga Christ arrived in Turin in the winter of 1634 after traveling throughout Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and Europe. Claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, he attracted both interest and suspicion from the Europeans he encountered in the courts of the Italian peninsula.

Giovanna Garzoni was also quite familiar with these court networks, which were a primary source of patronage throughout her career. She painted Zaga Christ’s portrait while serving as the miniature painter to the Duchess of Savoy from 1632 to 1637. She would then leave Turin and travel on to England, France, Florence, and Rome.

The installation places the travels of Zaga Christ and Giovanna Garzoni within a broader context of the mobility of people—by choice and by force—and the exchange of ideas and goods during the 1600s and 1700s. Works from the Allen’s collection of European, Asian, South American, and African art have been reinterpreted to focus on how their materials, styles, subjects, and makers speak to these themes.

Featured works include a Dutch still-life depicting commodities imported from overseas, an ivory saltcellar made by a Sapi artist (in what is now Sierra Leone) for a European audience, and a portable Italian altar with lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone imported to Europe from Afghanistan. These and other hidden stories are drawn out in the installation.

A five-minute video about the acquisition, written and narrated by Alexandra Letvin, is available at

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