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On Saturnine Complexions

Submitted by afrocentric on Wed, 22/07/2015 - 09:16

On one of my Google searches I came across an excerpt from Antonia Fraser's book King Charles II, where she mentions Charles' complexion, describing it as saturnine. Here is a snippet from the book:

First of all he had an abnormal darkness of complexion, a truly saturnine tint. This darkness was the subject of comment from the first. His mother wrote jokingly to her sister-in-law that she had give birth to a black baby and to a friend in France that 'he was so dark that she was ashamed of him'. Show would send his portrait 'as soon as he is a littler fairer'. But Charles never did become fairer. Later the sobriquet 'the Black Boy' would be used, still commemorated in English inn signs.

There was definitely a strain of very dark, swarthy Italian blood in the French royal family, inherited through Marie de Medici, which might and did emerge from time to time. Anne of Austria, wife of Henrietta Maria's brother Louis XIII, was said to have given birth to a baby having the 'colour and visage of a blackamor', which died a month after its birth. In 1664 another Queen of France, wife of Charles' first cousin Louis, was supposed to have given birth to a black child. There was even a 'fanatic' fantasy at the time of the Popish Plot in the 1670s, that Charles had been fathered on Henrietta Maria by a 'black Scotsman' - a neat combination of the two prejudices of the tiime, against the Catholics and the Scots. So it became convenient to refer to the then King as that 'black Bastard'.

Of the many grandchildren of Marie de Medici, Charles was the only one to look purely Italian; the rest being in general both frailer and paler. But his appearance was certainly a complete throwback to his Italian ancestors, the Medici Dukes of Tuscany. Directly descended as he was from Lorenzo the Magnificent there is a striking resemblance in their portraits. Bishop Burnet, alluding to Charles' Italianate appearance and intending to make a political point concerning tyranny, comparing the King to a statue of Tiberius. Marvell was presumably describing the same phenomenon when he described Charles as

Of a tall stature and of sable hue
Much like the son of Kish, that lofty Jew

I guess that pretty settles it where Charles' complexion is concerned. What I find interesting is the use of the word saturnine to describe his complexion. It is one of those words like sanguine which European insist on being related to humors, the then theory that when applied to a person's complexion they relate more to a person's temperament than their skin tone. This doesn't make sense for the simple reason that descriptions of people are for the purpose of identifying a person on sight, especially in an era where photographs did not exist, and accurate descriptions would be important especially if there were limited candidates to help identify a person from some context. If you were told Charles was a tall black man it wouldn't help in a gathering of Mandingo warriors, but it would narrow down the candidates in a gathering of English nobles, not to mention the Royal Palace.

I decided to lookup the meaning of the word for myself and this is the top entry on the Google search page.

adjective: saturnine

(of a person or their manner) slow and gloomy.
"a saturnine temperament"
synonyms: gloomy, somber, melancholy, moody, lugubrious, dour, glum, morose, unsmiling, humorless
"a saturnine temperament"
antonyms: cheerful
(of a person or their features) dark in coloring and moody or mysterious.
"his saturnine face and dark, watchful eyes"
synonyms: swarthy, dark, dark-skinned, dark-complexioned;
mysterious, mercurial, moody, brooding
"his saturnine good looks"
(of a place or an occasion) gloomy.

late Middle English (as a term in astrology): from Old French saturnin, from medieval Latin Saturninus ‘of Saturn’ (identified with lead by the alchemists and associated with slowness and gloom by astrologers).

None the definitions relating to personality could be said to apply to Charles, leaving the set of synonyms for complexion or coloring, such as the Saturnine Antshrike.

Further searches relate the word to lead, ie the metal, and its association with Saturn, which dates from medieval times, and more importantly a relation to lead as used in medical terminology.

pertaining to lead.
1. Relating to lead.
2. Due to or symptomatic of lead poisoning.
[Mediev. L. saturninus, fr. saturnus, lead, fr. L. saturnus, the god and planet Saturn]
1. Melancholy or sullen.
2. Produced by absorption of lead.
pertaining to lead or lead poisoning.
1. Relating to lead.
2. Due to or symptomatic of lead poisoning.
3. Denotes a surly facial expression.
[Mediev. L. saturninus, fr. saturnus, lead, fr. L. Saturnus, the god and planet Saturn]
pertaining to lead, the poisonous metal.

and what does lead look like?

It is a bluish white colour when cut or molten, with turns to a dark gray after it cools or exposed to air, which leads to these paintings of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza by Benedetto Gennari, leaving no doubt about their complexions.

What is most interesting is that fact that few of the descriptions of female royals describe them as dark skinned, which is in itself suspicious as dark complexioned men must have female ancestors who are as dark if not darker than they are. Louise de Kerouaille has the eyes, hair and features of woman would be described as black if not mixed race, portrayal with white skin notwithstanding.

Leading to another point. If many European women had the fair creamish/pinkish tone of white people, why would they want to make it whiter, ie chalk white, like Elizabeth I? I suspect that a lot of the paintings of European royal females with chalk-white complexions are paintings of females who were quite black, or mixed race at best, especially when they exhibit jet-black hair and dark-brown, even black eyes which in our era looks out of place against fair skin and fair hair. But that warrants another post in itself.

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