Four prisoners, naked, arms bound behind their backs, chained to a pedestal: these are the so-called “Four Moors,” sculpted by Pietro Tacca, which decorate the four corners of a monument to the Medici nobleman, Grand Duke Ferdinando.  Finished in 1626, this extraordinary monument still stands facing the harbor of Livorno, an important Tuscan seaport until the late nineteenth century.

As a recent paper by the art historian Mark Rosen makes clear, however, the title “Moor” did not attach to these figures until well after the monument was completed. Like any label, Moor is a generic term that erases significant distinctions.  In reality these four are a polyglot group, diverse by age, facial feature, hairstyle, and likely homeland.  As bad as it was to be a mere prisoner, they were probably destined for an even harsher fate: galley slavery.  Livorno at that time, Rosen observes, was a major supplier of galley slaves.  Within sight of the monument was an elaborate stone holding pen for these unfortunate men, typically captured at sea by Tuscan ships. Here they would be confined until transferred to the even more desperate hold of a huge vessel, chained to a bench and oar below deck, and condemned to row endlessly until they died of exhaustion or disease, usually within a couple of years.

Why were these miserable condemned men immortalized in such a grand, expensive, and conspicuous monument?  The standard answer, which I gave in my book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, is that their very misery and powerlessness enhance the glory of the commander standing above them. His majesty is buttressed by their subjection.

But after reading Rosen’s paper I’m not so sure that this answer does justice to an amazing work of art.  These remarkable figures are not mere foils.  In the extremity of their circumstances and their likely fate, they are fully and tragically human. They slide down the pedestal into our space, while the great man above stands remote, stiff and unengaging. The slaves twist and strain, their heads turned one way and another, their faces animated by individualized expressions.  The official hero of this monument is a stick figure, a thoroughly conventionalized commander, while the doomed men below his feet burst into life and individuality.

How could this be?  I got an unexpected insight while reading the exasperating but always interesting 19th-century Scottish author Thomas Carlyle. The pertinent passage is from his 1842 book On Heroes, on his poet-hero Dante’s struggle with Hell:

“Thought, true labor of any kind, highest virtue itself, is it not the daughter of Pain? Born as out of the black whirlwind; – true effort, in fact, as of a captive struggling to free himself: that is Thought. In all ways we are ‘to become perfect through suffering.’”

What a remarkable idea: that thought itself originates in something like a state of captivity, in the struggle to break free and escape the darkness of pain. Carlyle takes the stigma of slavery and turns it on its head. Rather than degrading man to brute, slavery here becomes the very condition through which we fulfill our highest humanity.

True, Carlyle may be romanticizing suffering and the ideal of Christian sacrifice (his quotation comes from Hebrews 2:10).  But despite that common language, his point here is rather different. It is one thing for a nation or a commander to achieve glory through the pain and blood of others (see my earlier post). It is quite another thing to take that pain seriously and to find in the sufferer the universal basis of our humanity. Carlyle is doing just that, suggesting that what makes people human – their capacity for thought – springs from a heroic effort to escape the binds of existence.

Viewed through this lens, the true noblemen in this monument are its slaves, whose plight is the plight of all humanity aspiring to something beyond mere survival.

Before we get too enamored of Carlyle, though, it is important to note that he was an elitist and a reactionary, a proud anti-democrat. Ultimately, for him, only a few godlike men like Dante could break free of the constraints of ordinary experience. Carlyle famously argued that the abolition of slavery was misguided; he would likely have had little sympathy for actual galley slaves.

In the real world, far from the reflections of philosophy, the prejudices of men like Carlyle have always stacked the deck against disadvantaged groups of people and made it much harder for them to undertake the “true labor” that constitutes a thoughtful life.  As the tragically downcast figure at one corner of the monument reminds us, these men were destined for a hard, futile death.  Their suffering would not be redeemed. No honored grave awaited them, no witness to pray for their salvation in the hereafter. If the figures on this monument were modeled from life, which seems plausible, then their suffering was “perfected” in one sense only, through the medium of art.

In their suffering, in their confinement, we recognize – as Carlyle’s better nature did – a fundamentally human condition.  That is why they come across as more human than the so-called “hero” above, who is without thought, feeling, or interior life of any kind. Yet like captives everywhere they also testify to human capacities that are trapped within them, waiting for release. Ultimately we all hope, with them, to be more than mere vessels of thought, to become empowered people who can step out into the world and act wisely and justly on our thoughts.