Many Europeans have long exhibited a fascination with the African continent. However their knowledge of Africa was often incorrect or incomplete. In the following article University of Cincinnati historian John K. Brackett describes the Italian idea of Africa during the 15th and 16th Centuries.
An African or person of African descent traveling or living in Italy, and reflecting on personal experience, might wonder how the African continent and its peoples have been imagined by Italians across time. Since my field of teaching and research is the Italian Renaissance, I have been drawn back to that period of roughly 1450-1630. There are two types of sources to plumb for this historical information: learned histories, world maps, records of reputed travels in Africa by European and Islamic travelers on the one hand; memoirs, reports or travelogues, which are documents recording actual experience with Africa and Africans by explorers, traders and travelers on the other. Learned sources of the type familiar to Renaissance humanists extend back in time to Greek and Roman antiquity, to Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Ptolemy. Non-elites, especially sailors, would also have relied upon coastal navigational maps, portolani, and their personal experiences in face-to-face encounters as travelers. We must remind ourselves that in this remote time period there was no Italy, no Europe. Instead, the people defined themselves as Christians, and all of the polities of Europe formed a bastion of Christendom. Beyond that self-designation, Italians lived in a geographical space called Italy which, in ancient Rome, had once raised a great civilization. But in the Renaissance, a patchwork of polities produced many races or razze, who also spoke many languages (local dialects). These groupings cordially disparaged each other. The Florentines, Pisans and Sienese shared a mutual dislike for each other that was expressed in racialist terms. Africa and its peoples were seen in much the same way—as a geographical space containing many