The Medici were one of the most infamous families in Italian and Renaissance history, a family of bankers who rose to rule Florence. They became patrons of the arts, backing the likes of Da Vinci and Galileo and produced four popes and two queens of France.
However, there is one member of the family who has been erased from history and has only recently been more widely spoken about in historical and media circles.
Alessandro de’ Medici was the only recognised illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici. It is believed that his mother was a servant in the Medici household. Her name was Simonetta da Collevecchio, who was believed to be of African descent by multiple historians such as Christopher Hibbert and John Brackett.
For the most part, he was disliked less for his skin colour than his mother’s status as a freed slave. He was seen as ‘false royalty’ throughout his life due his mother’s low birth.
He was given the nickname Il Moro, ‘The Moor’ by others, due to his dark skin and curly hair.
His half-sister, Catherine, Lorenzo’s only legitimate child would go on to be Queen consort to Henry II of France after their father’s death in 1519.
They were both raised under the guidance of the Medici pope Leo X (until his death in 1512) and cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici (later made Pope Clement VII). In 1522, he was given the title Duke of Penne from his uncle. Clement apparently favoured Alessandro, often taking his side in disputes he had with his cousin, Ippolito. This favour also fuelled rumours over who Alessandro’s father was or if Giuliano may have been his father.
According to one historian, Alessandro was morose, passionate and could be cruel. His manners were marked by ‘vulgarity and abruptness,’ something that was unexpected of a man of his class and upbringing. This attitude translated into his political life, making him many enemies.
After the siege of Florence ended in 1530, he was made Duke of Florence, after an agreement between the Pope and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1531. He was also later made Hereditary Duke in 1532, ending the Florentine republic, and making him the first Medici to rule Florence, starting a monarchy that would last just over 200 years.
Alessandro was married to Charles V’s illegitimate daughter, Margherita. His noble birth, being a direct descendent of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ‘Magnificent’, was an attractive feature and helped establish him as a genuine noble.
Descriptions of his rule vary. Positively, he was seen as a champion of the poor and helpless. He was also, like many in his family before him, a patron of the arts, commissioning pieces from notable artists at the time such as Ponto Moro. Duke Alessandro acted with the advice of elected councils and took their advice whilst ruling.
Florence’s vocal exile community judged his rule as harsh, depraved, and incompetent. In 1535, the exiles asked his cousin Ippolito to meet with Charles V to denounce Alessandro’s rule. They described him as a tyrant and accused him of every crime imaginable, but Charles ignored these, particularly after hearing from one of Alessandro’s advisors, who told a more favourable story of his rule.
Ippolito then died in questionable circumstances, which some believe Alessandro arranged. This helped prove to some of his contemporaries that he was a tyrant.
Alessandro was assassinated in 1537 by his distant cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici. This was an attempt to bring back the Florentine Republic. Power was passed on to Cosimo I de’ Medici from the junior line of the Medici family, marking the end of the senior family’s line and their rule in Florence.
Images of Alessandro vary amongst his contemporaries and historians.
No one was more determined to establish the worthiness of Alessandro as a good leader than his successor Cosimo I, who went on to be successful in his rule of Florence. Cosimo assumed responsibility for raising Alessandro’s two illegitimate children and avenged his death by assassinating Lorenzino.
For his contemporaries, as previously mentioned, his blackness was not why they hated him. To them, he was an arrogant tyrant, murderer and above all, a Medici. His race was perhaps the last objection they would have had about him.
His image as a tyrant however did prevail over time presenting him as the prince who started Florence’s ruin.
Historians, trying to take a more impartial view have argued back and forth as to what sort of man he really was with some concluding that he was a much better ruler than his detractors have claimed, pointing to his kindness to the poor and helpless.
Until recently, he has mostly been ignored within historian circles and mainstream representations of the Medici family or representations of Renaissance Italy. This is odd, considering his short and extraordinary life seems the kind of story one should tell in a period drama: from his womanising to his rule as the first Prince of Florence and the last of the original Medici line.
The story of Alessandro de’ Medici is part of a wider conversation around the erasure of Afro-Europeans from history books and the role they played in shaping Europe’s political history.
It is important for historical integrity and diversity to tell such stories and recognise the impact men and women like Alessandro had.
Michaela Makusha, History in Politics Writer