John Blanke and his Afro-European Namesakes
John Blanke is an important figure in the early history of the sub-Saharan diaspora in Europe, because he had a skilled position in royal service and because we have both clear textual and clear visual evidence about him. The very fact that we know his name seems significant, though there is the paradox that “blank” also implies a void.
His name, however, links him to a series of other Africans, both real and imagined, from the 1300s to the 1600s. John Blanke is a nickname, of a type known as an antiphrasis, which means that a person is identified by his opposite, like Robin Hood’s huge comrade, Little John; Blanke in this context means white (as “blanc” in French).
Dark-skinned people were already ironically referred to as white or silver in ancient Rome, and in 1354 the King of Aragon made the gift of an enslaved black African called “Johan Blanc” to King John the Good of France. Here the Christian name was meant to flatter the French king. In 1495, closer to John Blanke’s time, one “Zuan Bianco,” also called John the Ethiopian, was identified as a valiant commander of infantry in the Venetian army, and after his death in battle the Venetian state awarded a generous pension to his wife and children. (“Zuan” is Venetian dialect for John, and “bianco” is Italian for white.) Shakespeare may indirectly have drawn on Zuan Bianco in conceiveing his own black Venetian commander, Othello.
A bit later, in 1638, the Spaniard Andres de Claramonte wrote a play called The Valiant Black in Flanders, with another courageous African soldier as the protagonist. This man is another John (Juan), who is eventually granted the last name of the army’s leader, the Duke of Alba, thus becoming Juan Alba – and in Latin, “alba” means white.
All this means we must consider John Blanke’s name as part of a broad, enduring European phenomenon, though it does not make the ‘blacke trumpet' any less of an individual.
Professor of Art History
School of Humanities
Purchase College, The State University of New York (SUNY)