Reframing History: Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

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Circle of Bronzino, “Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici”

Alessandro de’ Medici was the first Duke of the Florence from 1532 to his death in 1537. Alessandro was the last of the senior line of the Medici family to lead Florence, recognized as the only son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici (the grandson of Lorenzo the Great). Yet, there are many questions about who Alessandro’s parents were. Nicknamed “Il Moro (The Moor),” Alessandro was often identified by his darker complexion. Many historians speculate about who Alessandro’s mother was and some suggest his mother was a servant of African descent who worked in the Medici household, identified as Simonetta da Collevecchio. There is little strong evidence to support Alessandro’s potential African heritage and some say the story of his African heritage was a rumor created to discredit him and his family. Despite this, Alessandro still is discussed in terms of his complexion and his African ancestry.

Born and raised in Rome, Alessandro was sent to Florence in 1521 following a number of deaths in the Medici family. One of three remaining Medici heirs (the others being his half-sister, Catherine, who went on to become the Queen of France, and his cousin, Ippolito), leadership of Florence was left to Alessandro after Giulio de’ Medici left for Rome to become Pope Clement VII. During this time, the Medicis were unpopular in Florence and the Medici government was overthrown in 1527. Alessandro was exiled from Florence for three years, returning to the city in 1530 after a ten-month siege of the city supported by Spanish troops. Pope Clement VII chose Alessandro to accept the role of Duke of Florence.

Alessandro’s government gained praise and criticism. Many exiled Florentine citizens viewed his rule as harsh, incompetent, and cruel, but he was also praised in ballads and novellas for his “common sense and his feeling for justice,” as well as his “status as a champion of the poor and helpless.”

Alessandro married Margaret of Austria, the daughter of Emperor Charles V, in 1536. He also kept a mistress, Taddea Malaspina, who bore two children; Giulio and Giulia. Giulio and Giulia both went on to have children of their own, many of whom were members of significant families throughout history.

Perhaps the most well-know aspect of Alessandro’s life is its untimely end. On January 6th, 1537, Alessandro’s distant cousin and friend, Lorenzino de’ Medici assassinated him. Tricking Alessandro with the promise of a sexual encounter with a beautiful widow, Lorenzino and a hired assassin ambushed Alessandro while he was alone and unarmed. The Duke fought back, even biting off a portion of Lorenzino’s figure during the fight, but he eventually succumbed to multiple stab wounds.

For fear of an uprising if the news of his death went public, Alessandro’s body was wrapped up carpet and quickly buried in the cemetery of San Lorenzo. Lorenzino hoped that murdering his cousin would reinstall the Florentine Republic, but the anti-Medici faction never rose and Florence’s Medici supported passed the Dukedom to Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first of the junior branch of the Medici family.

There were many who claimed Alessandro did not have a rightful claim to his title and the rumors of his cruel rule were seemingly justified for many by the rumors of his African ancestry. Images of Alessandro often show his darker complexion and include physical traits traditionally associated with African heritage. Alessandro’s life and significant role allows Renaissance historians to raise questions about Black figures in history. While his reign as Duke was short and fraught with conflict, for many he was remembered as a good ruler. He was a major patron of the arts and established the 200-year rule of Florence by the Medici family. Through all the conflict and questions surrounding Alessandro’s life, many still consider Alessandro the first Black head of state in the modern western world.


Further Reading:

The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Familes – A View on Race and the Art World

John Brackett, “Race and Rulership: Alessandro de’ Medici, first Medici Duke of Florence, 1529-1537,” in T.F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. 2005

Catherine Fletcher, The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici. 2016.

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