Black Florentine Dukes in the V&A

Duke Alessandro de Medici was not only the first duke of Florence but also Europe’s first black head of state. He was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo de Medici, duke of Urbino and a Moorish slave called Simonetta da Collevecchio.  His African parentage was widely recognised and he was even nicknamed il Moro, a term given to people of African lineage. Lorenzo’s own daughter Catherine de Medici, Queen of France gave court historian Jean Nestor royal sanction to write a book on the House of Medici. It includes this passage: ‘Lorenzo de Medici, duke of Urbino and father of Catherine de Medici had a natural son called Alessandro, born to a half-negro woman.’ 

Portraits, coins and artefacts from the period leave in no doubt his racial background. The Victoria and Albert Museum, Knightsbridge has within its archive an engraved gemstone dated 1532-1547 which depicts the jet black Duke with Afro hair and a large nose. It’s openly displayed in Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery.  His African lineage is examined in detail in the book The Black Prince of Florence by respected Renaissance historian Catherine Fletcher.

By some accounts Alessandro was actually fathered by Lorenzo’s cousin Cardinal Guilio, later Pope Clement Vll. Historians believe this to be so for many documented reasons, amongst those, when he was appointed Pope Clement Vll in 1523 Guilio had to give up his noble titles and so chose the thirteen year old Alessandro as his title successor – even though he was illegitimate. This son, who had only just been appointed Duke of Penna, was then given a regent to rule in his place until he reached maturity. Alessandro and the Pope’s nephew Ipollito became the recognised male heads of the Medici Family.

However, the regency period was one of great political transition and social turmoil. The Florentines pressed for greater democracy and sought to dissolve the ruling classes. This opportunity was seized in 1527 when Emperor Charles V attacked Rome and new government measures were passed which did not include the repressive Medici Family. Alessandro and Ipollito were forced into exile on point of death but their family ties ran deep enough for a timely recovery. The Medici Family reigned over Florence throughout the 15th and 16th centuries although their influence over the arts, finance and state affairs extended well into the 18th century so giving up power quietly was never an option for their formidable lineage.

Alessandro came to power in 1537 when Emperor Charles Vl sought to stamp his influence on Florence by propping up Alessandro as a figurehead. As part of the political bargaining for which this family were notorious Alessandro had to marry the Emperor’s illegitimate daughter Margaret of Austria. The accounts of his subsequent rule differ. Some historical sources claim he was licentious and preferred the company of women to affairs of state yet he was widely admired for his intelligence, protection of the poor, sense of justice and love of the arts. However, Florence had grown weary of tyrannical Medici rule as a desire for greater freedoms continued to galvanise the masses, swept up by the spirit of the Renaissance.

Even family members sought to capitalise from the  unrest and Allesandro was eventually killed by his own cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici. Ultimately, Florentine power marriages meant little because even though he was the Emperor’s son-in-law he would be dead within a year of his wedding. Historians weren’t shocked to find that a relative who had snaked his way into Allesandro’s inner circle was responsible for the murder. Unsurprisingly for this machiavellian age it was yet another Medici who avenged his assassination. Cosimo de Medici succeeded Alessandro in 1537 and promptly ordered Lorenzino’s murder.  

Eddie Saint-Jean

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