Lead book review

Florence's black Medici prince: a drama worthy of Shakespeare

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

In a recent interview, the African American actor Wendell Pierce revealed he had once been told by the head of casting at a Hollywood studio: ‘I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people then.’ The story was repeated on social media with a mixture of horror and hilarity, many responding — as Pierce himself did — ‘You ever heard of Othello?’

Yet the head of casting’s comments represent a common misconception and a significant gap in historical memory. Black Africans have been a visible presence in European life for centuries — and not only as slaves. In the 16th century, there were black musicians, such as Henry VIII’s trumpeter, John Blanke. There were black scholars, such as the Spanish poet and professor of Latin Juan Latino. There were black holy men, such as St Benedict of Palermo. There were entirely ordinary black people: a 1565 collection of etchings of 72 Flemish peasants, apparently based on the paintings of Pieter Brueghel, included three distinctly African faces. And it seems there was at least one black (or mixed-race) head of state: Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, husband to a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and half-brother to the Queen of France.

Alessandro was born in 1511 or 1512. His mother was an enslaved African or part-African woman; his father was Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino, the last legitimate heir to the main branch of the Medici family. There were rumours at the time that Alessandro’s real father was Lorenzo’s cousin Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII. This would be irresistible to a writer of fiction — making Alessandro perhaps the only person in history to be the offspring of a Pope and an African slave.


As a writer of history, Catherine Fletcher accepts the more likely story that he was Lorenzo’s son. Even so, Clement’s devotion to Alessandro brought the young prince many of his luckiest breaks. His cousin and lifelong rival Ippolito de’ Medici, the other illegitimate hope of the dynasty, grudgingly accepted a position as a cardinal while Alessandro became a duke. It would not end there: this account of the scions’ struggle against each other and the world bursts with stabbings, poisonings, duels, eye-gougings, arquebus shootouts and people being run through with swords.

Fletcher’s approach is scholarly yet dramatic, immersed in Renaissance glamour. In 1530, Alessandro attended the first coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Bologna. Fletcher sets the scene: Alessandro’s men wore livery of ‘shimmering peacock purple’ and ‘dark, fiery red’; he wore ‘dark damask lined with wolfskin’ and was honoured to carry the orb, ‘a golden globe adorned with gems dividing it into Asia, Africa and Europe’. Perhaps Alessandro’s racially mixed appearance symbolically underlined the emperor’s claim to global power as he took the Iron Crown.

Charles V became close to Alessandro and allowed his own illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria, to marry him. Had it resulted in living heirs, this Medici-Habsburg match might have had major implications for history. Alessandro’s half-sister Catherine de’ Medici — his father’s only legitimate child — had already married into the French Valois family, the Habsburgs’ great rivals, and would go on to become the most powerful woman in Europe.

‘It was the misfortune of Alessandro de’ Medici to be assassinated twice,’ Fletcher writes, ‘first with a sword, then with a pen.’ Accounts of his life by those who benefited from his death, and by generations of European historians who despised his race, portrayed him as ugly, stupid and cruel; a tyrant and a murderer. He probably did order a murder or two, but that was hardly out of turn for a Renaissance prince. Fletcher does a thorough job of debunking all the other allegations, creating a portrait of an intelligent, politically skilled man with a sense of social responsibility, providing dowries for poor families in Florence. He loved dogs, hunting and art. His mistresses included a wealthy widow who gave him two children. His relationship with his wife was generous, considerate and affectionate on both sides.

Alessandro seems to have had a defiant sense of humour about his origins and status. His wardrobe contained an elaborate Turkish costume. His contemporary Henry VIII also dressed up as a Turk, but he was legitimate and white; the King of England was not inviting a shockingly direct comparison to the Ottoman sultans, whose mothers were slaves. ‘Were Alessandro and his courtiers mocking the critics of the duke’s low birth?’ Fletcher asks. For a carnival in 1534, Alessandro and his entourage dressed as gypsies and peasants. Another snook was cocked at those who derided his favour for the lower classes: ‘It is as if Alessandro and his court were saying yes, we know what you say about us, and we don’t care much.’

This insouciant streak may have been Alessandro’s undoing. In 1537, his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici offered to facilitate a liaison with a noblewoman. The duke let his guard down and waited for the lady in Lorenzino’s chamber — but was ambushed and hacked to death. He was still only in his mid-twenties. His reputation did not begin to recover until he was championed by African-American writers in the early 20th century. Catherine Fletcher’s engrossing biography is a tremendous step forward in our knowledge of this intriguing man. Perhaps even the casting directors of Hollywood will one day concede that there were, in fact, black people in 16th-century Europe — and some of their stories are as gripping as any ‘Shakespeare movie’.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17.00. Tel: 08430 600033. Alex von Tunzelmann’s books include Indian Summer, about the partition of 1947, and Red Heat, about the Cold War in the Caribbean.

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Show comments
  • Richard

    Some Italians are swarthy, but they are not Negroid. In other words, there is more to being black (in the sense that you imply) than skin-colour. Black – or African – requires a certain facial conformation as well. In the same way, African albinos are not white, only their skin is.

  • I was just remarking yesterday how history textbooks will eventually change to incorporate all races of the earth into our island story by exaggerating the multicultural nature of the UK. Forget the fact my grandfather would not have been surrounded by any other than English- Henry VIII had a black trumpeter! I think it astonishing to find evudence of syrians in the Roman legions at Hadrian’s Wall, but let’s not overdo it.

  • post_x_it

    Othello is not supposed to be black. He is a Moor, which implies Arab-Berber appearance.
    If you’re trying to be ‘accurate’ in casting Othello, then using an Afro-Caribbean or Sub-Saharan African actor makes no sense at all.

  • Mario Valdes

    For a far less equivocal analysis of his black African ancestry, please Google PBS FRONTLINE / ALESSANDRO DE MEDICI

  • Mario Valdes

    As the first Duke of Florence and, therefore, the first black head of state in modern Western history, he is also the ancestor of any number of Hapsburg Arch Dukes and Duchesses as well as countless members of the European nobility and aristocracy, not to mention captains of industry, who descend from him today.

    From the line of Hubert Salvatore, Archduke of Austria, for instance, the present day Princes of Liechtenstein and those of Baden also descend. Because of how this last example is related to the British Royal Family, which, of course, is the most popularly known to the rest of the world, perhaps it might help if it were pointed out that Prince Philip’s nephew is Prince Maximilian Andreas of Baden whose wife is the Austrian Archduchess, Valerie, Hubert’s daughter.

    Through Eugene, 8th Prince of Ligne, is also descended Prince Pedro Luiz of Orléans-Braganza, Pretender to the Brazilian Imperial Throne. Considering the popularly celebrated inter racial character of the population, this fact is a particularly pertinent one to the South American nation since it will host the Olympic Games this year.

    It is this genealogical information which, after all, is the reason for the obscurity to which Alessandro de’ Medici has been relegated and what makes his biography by Catherine Fletcher such an exceptionally important and relevant one.

  • macthenaif

    They had not discovered the sin of miscegenation yet. That had to wait for the enlightenment.

  • Mario Valdes

    It only occurred to me a few months ago, that in my samples of the Duke of Florence’s descent, I’d not included the Bonapartes – in particular, the wife of Napoleon III of France, the Empress Eugenie (and, of course, their only child, Napoleon Eugene, the Prince Imperial – Napoleon IV to Bonapartists – who predeceased her). Empress Regent during several periods of her husband’s absence as Commander of the nation’s military forces during the Italian, Crimean and Franco Prussian Wars, she was a formidable political force in her own rights.

    Highly educated, she was probably the most diplomatically influential and undoubtedly the most glamorous and celebrated of Alessandro de’ Medici’s progeny. According to a biographical sketch I’ve come across, it was she who gave to the 2nd Empire, the romanticism by which it is still remembered.

    “She reigned as empress of that glittering epoch in French history known as the “Circus Empire.” Although praised for her beauty and credited with transforming the Tuileries Palace into a mecca for European society, Eugénie was more than an arbiter of style; she was one of the most courageous and influential women of her age. She endured three wars, a scandalous private life, and deep-rooted prejudice against her background. As Napoleon’s health failed and his politics floundered, Eugénie grew stronger and more resolute in her attempt to protect the throne.”

    Something else that should prove especially interesting to British and Commonwealth readers is the Empress’ close relationship with Queen Victoria who was Godmother of her son, the Prince Imperial. It was to him that she’d been planning to offer her daughter, Beatrice’s hand in marriage had he not died, a casualty – and a rather ironic one, at that – of the Anglo Zulu War in 1879.

    Princess Eugenie, the daughter of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, and his wife Sarah, is named after Beatrice’s daughter, Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg who, in turn, had been named for her Godmother, the Dowager Empress of France in 1887.

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