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Dido and Laura in Carthage: White purity, epidermal race, and sexual violence in Petrarch’s Africa

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Abstract

Scholarship in premodern critical race studies has emphasised the role of oppositional colour metaphors, the entanglement of religious and somatic difference, and Frantz Fanon’s concept of epidermalisation in genealogies of race-making in premodern Europe. However, little work has been done on race in the writings of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), known in English as Petrarch. This essay focuses on Petrarch’s Latin epic Africa and explores its depictions of the Carthaginian princess Sophonisba as similar to both Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde women typically idealised in medieval chivalric literature and in Petrarch’s own lyric poetry. In particular, it argues that Petrarch shifted Sophonisba’s racial identity to celebrate Christian whiteness, condemn Islam and African eroticism, and warn against race-mixing. Through an intersectional reading of white femininity, epidermal race, and interracial sex in Africa, this essay illustrates that Petrarch’s women existed in states of subjectivity always already defined by a white Christian male gaze: Petrarch presented Black and non-Christian women as temptresses and white Christian women as the victims of African male hyper-sexuality.

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Notes

  1. This essay was originally published in Read (1996, 12–37).

  2. I use Petrarca (1978) for the English version of Africa. For the Latin text, I consult Petrarca (1926), Nicola Festa’s Edizione Nazionale critical edition of Africa, which I discuss in the coda.

  3. See Ania Loomba who points out, ‘Islam and blackness were regarded as overlapping categories for Christians from the Crusades onwards’ (2002, 46).

  4. Throughout, I follow both postmedieval’s and the AP’s usage of capitalised ‘Black’ when referring to people who are racialised as Black. I retain ‘black’ or ‘blackness’ when referring to the color black. There are other methods for usage of Black versus black. See, for example, Derbew (2022, 14).

  5. I borrow the term racecraft from Barbara Fields and Karen Fields, who define it as a ‘mental terrain and pervasive belief’ that is ‘not a euphemistic substitute for racism. It is a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene’ (2014, 18-19).

  6. For the philosophical implications of ‘always already,’ see Heidegger (1962) and Althusser (1994).

  7. In this paragraph, I use traditional citation of the Canzoniere, but cite Petrarca 1996a because of its useful side-by-side English-Italian format.

  8. Numerous scholars reject Reconquista as a problematic term, as it is laden with political meaning given its use in modern Spanish Catholic nationalist historiography. On these debates, see García-Sanjuán (2004); Catlos (2007); de Ayala (2013, 225–6); García-Sanjuán (2017a, b); García-Sanjuán (2017a, b); García-Sanjuán (2019); and García-Sanjuán (2018).

  9. On Robert the Wise and his rule, see Galasso (1992); Tramontana (2000); Kelly (2003).

  10. Robert died in 1343, though Petrarch decided to keep the original dedication. He also concluded Africa with a commemoration of Robert’s death (IX.419-484; Petrarca 1978, 238-9).

  11. Sophonisba is discussed in other sources, namely Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana, Plutarch’s Life of Scipio, and the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus. But Petrarch’s lack of Greek and these texts’ relative obscurity until translated into Latin meant these texts were not accessible to him.

  12. Petrarch laments, regarding Dido: ‘“what cruel injustice will be done to her— / but who will believe it?—if it yet should be / that some detractor, trusting his art, / will, in his verses, tarnish her fair name / with taint of shameless passion!”’ (III.425-427; Petrarca 1978, 56).

  13. This issue of narration and the creation of difference is crucial for understanding how epic poems function as historical texts that highlight heroes and the ‘nations’ they build. See Bhabha (1990) and Quint (1993), especially ‘Part One: Epic and the Winners.’

  14. Petrarch did not literally say that blood would be altered (as the translation reads), but he does explain that the great people of Rome would be altered (‘Mutasset genus egregium’), which implies corruption through miscegenation.

  15. Stuart Hall uses this turn of phrase, ‘hide and seek,’ to discuss the relationship between ethnicity and race. I see the relation of religion and race operating similarly here.

  16. See Dodman (2022).

  17. See Newth (2022) and Bruno et al. (2021).

  18. See Coviello (2022) and Colonnello (2022).

  19. Festa translated into Latin Mussolini’s speeches declaring victory in Ethiopia in the 1930s; see Lamers (2017).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Patricia Akhimie, Solange Ashby, Andrew Bozio, Urvashi Chakravarty, Ananda Cohen-Aponte, Frances Dolan, Katherine Gillen, Heather Kopelson, and Jose Villagrana for their feedback on an earlier version of this essay. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers who helped me sharpen the argument substantially.

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John Clines, R. Dido and Laura in Carthage: White purity, epidermal race, and sexual violence in Petrarch’s Africa. Postmedieval 14, 89–118 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-022-00258-8

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