Prospero in the Economist:
ANGELO SOLIMAN is probably best known in his fictional incarnation as the disgraced African servant boy in “The Man Without Qualities”, Robert Musil’s novel about the end of the Austrian monarchy. The real Soliman mixed in Vienna’s high society. His ignominy came in death rather than life.
Soliman, the subject of an exhibition at the Wien Museum in Vienna, arrived in Austria as a slave from western Africa, where he was born in 1721. There was a fashion for “House Moors” at this time and Soliman was apparently an exceptional man. He acted as a soldier and adviser in one princely household and then came to Vienna in 1753 to serve as a valet and tutor in another. There were some 40 African inhabitants of Vienna in the 18th century—many of them noble servants like Soliman. He successfully integrated into Austrian society, joining an elite Free Mason’s lodge to which Mozart belonged and strolling in the capital’s tree-lined Augarten with Emperor Joseph II.
In modern terms, he might be seen as the perfect immigrant. But after he died his stuffed skin was put on display in the imperial natural history collection, a fate that reflected a deep ambivalence towards nonwhites. In Vienna this ambivalence continues to this day, as illustrated in a video in the exhibition of interviews with Africans now living in the Austrian capital.
“Soliman: An African in Vienna” devotes as much attention to this racial context as to the former slave’s life. Pictures, documents and household objects from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries portray Africa and the Orient as both frightful and fascinating. African men are depicted as savages, docile servants or courageous fighters in the Ottoman armies that besieged Europe’s south-eastern flank.