How Paintings Shaped Perceptions of Gypsies

The captivating saga of the Romani people stretches across centuries and continents, tracing their origins in India to a diaspora that defied borders. The 1018 mass deportation set the stage for their remarkable journey, leading to their presence across Europe and beyond.

How Paintings Shaped Perceptions of Gypsies
Caravaggio, Fortune Teller, 1595

The tale of the Gypsy people—or the Romani, as they call themselves—is not a story confined to a single place or a single time. It’s a narrative that spans more than a millennium, crossing continents and defying borders, a diaspora that began in the autumn of 1018. This article endeavors to shed light on the fascinating history and cultural resilience of the Gypsy people, from their origins in northern India to their wide-reaching presence across Europe and beyond.

The journey starts with the ancient city of Kannauj in northern India. In 1018, it was stormed, captured, and burned by the Afghan sultan Mahmoud. He ordered the deportation of nearly the entire populace— “53,000 men, women, and children, poor and rich, light and dark-skinned, whole families” —to Gazni, the capital of his burgeoning empire that eventually included modern-day Pakistan, eastern Iran, and Afghanistan. These exiles were poorly integrated in Gazni and eventually sold to northern nobles who forced them into military service, setting the stage for a dispersion that would extend into the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Many of the Kannaujites were enlisted in armies and forced to fight battles across the region. Their military endeavors led them to Baghdad and eastern Turkey, where a large group eventually settled under the sultanate of Roum. They became known as “atsiganis,” a name that evolved into 'tsiganes' in French and 'Zigeuner' in German. Another faction went on to Jerusalem, fighting against the Crusaders before finding refuge in the Middle East. Because they were mistakenly thought to have originated from Egypt, they were called “egiptianos,” which gave rise to the terms “gitanos” in Spanish and “gypsies” in English.

A linguistic tapestry mirrors this complex history. Marcel Courthiade, an expert and a member of the Romani community, explains that Romani has “about nine hundred Hindu roots, two hundred and twenty Greek, thirty Armenian and sixty Persian.” Over time, this rich language absorbed Slavic, Romanian, and Hungarian elements. The strength and adaptability of Romani reflect a high level of cultural sophistication and a surprisingly unified ethnic identity, given the group's extensive dispersal.

A unique feature of the Gypsy people is their cultural adaptability. In German-speaking territories, for example, the community known as Sinti or Manouches developed a distinct language variant. In the Iberian Peninsula, authority figures' attempts to suppress the Romani language gave rise to a cryptolect known as Kaló, which allowed the community to communicate in secret. Despite these local adaptations, an underlying cultural unity persists, anchored by linguistic elements and social customs that trace back to a common origin.

Marcel Courthiade's work brings together linguistic, glottochronological, historical, and anthropological research to substantiate the claim that the mass deportation in 1018 is the most likely origin point for this complex diaspora. The enduring Romani language and shared cultural traits strongly suggest that the Gypsy people have managed to maintain a unified identity across multiple cultures and a millennium of history.

The Roma in Europe

Europe in the late Middle Ages and early Modern period was a continent in flux. While the twilight of the Renaissance ushered in an age of exploration, discovery, and innovation, it also introduced a darker narrative. Amidst the backdrop of societal upheaval, one ethnic group—the Roma—found themselves cast as the unwanted “other,” subjected to a tumultuous history of stigmatization, exclusion, and even genocide.

Although there are records of the Roma arriving in Europe as early as the 14th century, it was during the 15th and 16th centuries that their presence became increasingly conspicuous. The timing was unfortunate. Europe was undergoing radical shifts in societal norms. Cities were sprouting, fueled by a rising class of artisans, merchants, and sailors who were challenging the medieval social order. As urban areas expanded, common lands like forests were increasingly becoming privatized.

Religious schisms, notably the division within the Christian church, led to witch-hunts and persecution of marginalized communities. All these changes stoked the fears of mainstream society against the Roma, an itinerant people with their language, customs, and beliefs. They were swiftly labeled as pagans, thieves, sorcerers, and vagrants.

The descriptions of the time, such as those in Jacques Callot's late 16th-century drawings, painted a derogatory portrait of the Roma. They were often described as having dark skin, a trait that, along with a nomadic lifestyle, served as fodder for racial prejudices. The stereotype of Roma as dirty and even child-stealers was ubiquitous. This was despite the reality that skin color variations within the community were often due to their rich and complex history of migration and intermarriage.

One of the most glaring ironies was the mistrust shown by religious institutions. Whether it was Christian, Protestant, Orthodox, or Muslim clergy, the Roma faced universal prejudice. They were refused participation in religious practices, segregated from communal gatherings, and often blamed for events ranging from theft to disease outbreaks. The fact that they could adopt the religion of whichever territory they found themselves in only deepened suspicions against them.

The traditional trades of the Roma, such as metalwork and horse-trading, instead of earning them respect, often led to further discrimination. They faced regulations and rejections from local guilds, even as their craftsmanship was undeniable. Their unique skills in fortune-telling garnered both fascination and suspicion, complicating their already precarious social standing.

Perhaps the only saving grace for the Roma was their talent in music and dance, as well as their ability to entertain with trained animals. These performances sometimes ingratiated them with local nobility, offering temporary respite from persecution. Yet even this was tainted by stereotypes of sexual promiscuity, casting a long shadow on their cultural contributions.

From the 15th through the 18th centuries, the Roma faced a relentless onslaught of legislative action aimed at their expulsion or even eradication. Countries across Europe enacted laws and edicts that ranged from body marking to capital punishment. Such policies, which amounted to a slow, flagrant genocide, persisted for centuries. Refuge was found only in remote locations, and even there, they lived under constant threat.

Caravaggio, Card Players, 1595
Caravaggio, Card Players, 1595

The Portrayal of Gypsies in Art

In a quiet corner of the National Museum of Art in downtown Mexico City hangs a captivating work by Caravaggio, a master of the Baroque period renowned for pioneering the chiaroscuro technique. The painting, framed with the title “Zingara che predice la ventura,” depicts a gypsy woman reading a young man’s palm while stealthily lifting his ring. The accompanying text in the gallery describes the scene as “realistic,” in line with Caravaggio's artistic reputation. But is this painting, often seen as a slice-of-life from the streets of 17th-century Italy, truly reflective of reality, or does it serve another, darker purpose?

Prejudices are not fleeting thoughts; they are deeply entrenched in society. They arise at intersections of social events and survive through culture and popular imagination. Oftentimes, they are incited and perpetuated through moments of crisis, subtly existing but rarely being explicit. In this context, Caravaggio's painting can be viewed as a manifestation of existing prejudices about gypsies during his time.

According to art historian John F. Moffitt, Caravaggio's portrayal reinforces the notion of gypsies as tricksters and thieves. By presenting these stereotypes as 'realistic,' the painting perpetuates a false narrative, feeding into the prejudices that have continued to affect the Roma people for centuries. Caravaggio, far from being just an observer of his time, becomes a participant in embedding these stereotypes into the nascent worldview of his period.

Interestingly, around the same time as Caravaggio's painting, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes penned “La gitanilla,” a novella featuring a young gypsy girl named Preciosa. Described as beautiful, kind, and intelligent, Preciosa turns out not to be a gypsy by birth but rather a girl stolen by gypsies. This narrative, too, indirectly contributes to the stereotype of gypsies as deceptive and criminal, despite its seeming intent to humanize them.

As the centuries passed, these perceptions evolved but remained damaging. Even the idealized portrayals of the “free and festive Gypsy” during the 19th century, influenced by Romanticism and Orientalism, served as a counterpoint to the darker image being constructed through the guise of “scientific” race theories. The consequences of these stereotypes reached a horrifying climax during the Holocaust, where almost half a million Gypsies were murdered—a genocide that is rarely discussed even today.

Currently, over 12 million people identify as part of the various Roma communities worldwide, with nearly 1.5 million residing in Latin America and 16,000 in Mexico. Despite facing generations of persecution and prejudice, how has the Roma community managed to survive?

Cultural cohesion, adaptability, and economic diversity appear to be the pillars of their resilience. Alain Reyniers, who has studied the economic systems of the Roma, explains that the community's ability to adapt to different professions and activities allows them to preserve their way of life. Moreover, their close-knit families and communities provide a support network that has enabled them to survive even in hostile environments.

In stark contrast to other marginalized communities that seek visibility and recognition, the Roma have often chosen to remain inconspicuous, navigating life on the societal margins. Their hesitancy to be visible, whether sedentary or nomadic, has defined their existence and allowed them to endure despite widespread prejudice.

Final Thoughts

The story of the Roma is a stark reminder that prejudices, once seeded, can be incredibly resilient and damaging. Works of art and literature, often considered mirrors of society, can also become instruments in perpetuating these prejudices. As we marvel at the mastery of artists like Caravaggio or the storytelling genius of Cervantes, it is crucial to remain critically aware of the narratives they may inadvertently—or intentionally—uphold.

The question we must grapple with is whether these prejudices are mere reflections of their times, or if they have been weaponized to serve darker societal agendas. As consumers and interpreters of art and history, we have a responsibility to challenge these narratives, especially when they serve to marginalize and demonize communities that already exist on the fringes of society.

Source: Trueba, César Carrillo. ‘Mil Años de Vida En Los Márgenes | César Carrillo Trueba’. Revista de La Universidad de México, Accessed 17 Sept. 2023.