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Alessandro De’ Medici, 1529-1537: Europe’s First Black Prince?

John Brackett

I propose to present a paper based on my research area of Renaissance Florence, with particular emphasis on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The paper would be entitled as above. Many historians of the Italian Renaissance well know Alessandro de’ Medici as the first Medici duke, a tyrant who finally deprived republican Florence of its natural liberties. Less well known today is that his mother was an African slave woman; I argue, an African from below the Sahara, making Alessandro a black Afro-Florentine. My primary interest is in exploring how race and its connection (or not) to skin color was viewed by Florentines and other Europeans in the sixteenth century.
A collateral interest to this study is how and why Alessandro’s racial heritage seems to have slipped the notice of so many intellectuals today, not only historians but art historians, theater people, and museum managers.

There are a number of well known portraits of Alessandro, for example. Two or possibly three are by the Florentine artist Pontormo, who lived during the same time as the duke, and painted him from life. Other portraits were painted by artists working from other sources (even one of the Pontormo portraits), well after the duke’s assassination in 1537, at the hand of a distant cousin, Lorenzino. Although he was represented in other pictorial media—tapestry, and medals, for example—Pontormo best captured his physical appearance in a portrait now at the Chicago Museum of Fine Arts, which leaves little doubt as to his African heritage. His father was most likely Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino, although others argue that his father was actually Giulio de’ Medici, the future pope Clement VII, who selected Alessandro as duke pending the successful conclusion of the siege of Florence (1527-30) by troops of the Emperor Charles V. Charles gave his own illegitimate daughter, Margherita, in marriage to Alessandro to seal to the partnership of Emperor and Pope.

Ennoblement of the Medici, backed by imperial troops was Clement’s price. In 1537, Alessandro was assassinated by Lorenzino, who immediately fled to Venice where he was hailed by the community of Florentine exiles there as the “New Brutus.” Since then, Alessandro and Lorenzino have been locked together by history, yet far more interest has been devoted to Lorenzino that his victim. The story has been the subject of histories, even a novel, and a number of plays. In March of this year, Alfred de Musset’s play Lorenzaccio (mid-eighteenth century) was presented in Washington DC to critical acclaim! But Alessandro appears only as a stereotypical tyrant played by a white actor.

My paper would look specifically at two sources: the visual imagery of Alessandro—portraits, tapestries, medals, sculpture--and the literature (a dialogue by Ceccherelli, and poems) associated with the attempt to create a positive image of him, and thus to integrate him into the royal imagery in the process of creation on behalf of the Medici family line. The paper proposal addresses a number of issues raised in the conference announcement: The area of empirical research on a subject; the attempt to understand how Black Europeans understood themselves at this distant time; the relationship of the category of race and birth (in his case, patrician/aristocratic and slave). I will send along a short vita to outline my general research interests. I have published one article on Alessandro entitled, “Race and Rulership:

Alessandro de’ Medici first duke of Florence, 1529-1537,in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by Lowe and Earle, out May 9, Cambridge University Press.

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