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The life of Alessandro de' Medici, the Black Duke of Florence
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Italian Renaissance was an incredible time for culture, arts and science. From artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to the writer Machiavelli and the scientist Galileo - a noteworthy list of cultural and historical powerhouses.
Intertwined with the history of the Italian Renaissance is the city of Florence and the House of Medici; the powerful and infamous family of Florentine bankers. It might be surprising that the very first Duke of Florence with Medici in his name was of African ancestry. For centuries, Afro-Europeans have been erased from the history books and only now are they starting to gain the spotlight they deserve.
This is the story of Alessandro de' Medici, otherwise known as Il Moro (‘The Moor’), the Black Duke of Florence.
Born in Florence in 1510, the official story states that Alessandro was the son of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, the Duke of Urbino and future ruler of Florence (1516 - 1519). However, many historians believe that Alessandro was actually the son of Giulio de’ Medici, future Pope Clement VII. Whilst the truth may never be known, Giulio showed great favour to Alessandro throughout his life.
As for Alessandro’s mother, she is identified in documents as Simonetta da Collevecchio, a servant in the Medici household who was believed to be an ex-slave with a North African heritage.
Considering the time and place in which he lived, one might imagine that a dark-skinned, son of a black servant would face discrimination. However, it was his 'low birth', rather than his skin colour that made life difficult for Alessandro.
Education and political beginnings
Under the guidance of Pope Leo X, who was himself a member of the Medici family, Alessandro received his education in Rome, alongside his half-sister, Catherine de' Medici, who became the Queen of France in 1547.
Giulio, who was by now a cardinal, relocated Alessandro, Catherine and Alessandro’s cousin, Ippolito de' Medici, to Rome. Alessandro and Ippolito often fought and bickered, and it was clear from the start which of the pair Giulio favoured. In 1522, he bestowed the title of Duke of Penne upon Alessandro and a year later, Giulio found himself elected Pope, taking the title of Pope Clement VII.
Being the last remaining members of what became known as the elder line of the Medici family, upon Giulio’s election to the papacy, Alessandro and Ippolito were given the leadership of Florence under a regency. The regent was incredibly unpopular, so much so that an uprising in 1527 led to the removal of the Medici family from power in Florence. Alessandro and Ippolito fled and remained in exile for the next few years.
Duke of Florence
Pope Clement VII and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, came to an agreement in 1529 and a year later, Florence was back under the control of the Medici family after an 11-month siege of the city.
Clement chose Alessandro over Ippolito to be the head of the Florence state and by 1532 he’d been made a hereditary Duke. Later that year, Alessandro’s power was consolidated with the Florentine Constitution of 1532.
The move marked the end of the Florentine Republic and the beginning of the Medici dynasty in Florence – a monarchy that lasted over 200 years.
It seems that the mixed sentiments of Alessandro’s peers towards his character continue to confuse and spark debate amongst modern historians. Whilst some echo his reputation as a champion of the poor and helpless, equipped with common sense and a strong feeling for justice, others speak of his tyrannical tendencies.
It’s no surprise that the most vocal of his detractors were those in exile after the 1530 siege of Florence. Those who hated the Medici viewed him as a harsh and depraved ruler whose incompetence was only matched by his debauched lifestyle.
Grip on power
In 1534, Pope Clement VII passed away, emboldening the exiled opposition to take a stand against Alessandro’s rule. Turning to Alessandro’s cousin Ippolito, they persuaded him to meet with Charles V and convince the emperor that the Duke and his government needed to go. However, on his way to meet the emperor, Ippolito died suddenly under strange circumstances.
Some believe that Ippolito’s death was no coincidence and that he in fact had been poisoned on the orders of Alessandro. Proof of his tyrannical ways or malicious rumours spread by his enemies? We’ll never know for sure.
Either way, the exiles’ pleas to Charles fell on deaf ears as the emperor put his full support behind Alessandro and his regime. Charles gave Alessandro his own illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria, to be his wife, seemingly cementing Alessandro’s position of authority.
Things, however, took a deadly turn in 1537. A distant cousin of Alessandro, Lorenzino de' Medici, lured the Duke to his house after promising a sexual liaison with a woman. Alessandro and Lorenzino had grown close over the years so Alessandro trusted his cousin, unsuspecting of his dark motives.
Unarmed and without his men, Alessandro waited in a room whilst Lorenzino supposedly fetched the woman. Instead, Lorenzino and his servant caught the Duke unawares and stabbed him to death.
Lorenzino later claimed his motive for the attack was to free Florence of Alessandro’s tyranny and return it once again to a Republic. Of course, those in exile championed Lorenzino as a hero, however, that’s about as far as they went. The assassin, now heralded as the ‘new Brutus’, hoped for a revolution and a revolt against the Medici rule, which never transpired.
Lorenzino fled to Venice in dismay and 12 years later was also the victim of an assassination upon the orders of Emperor Charles V, who couldn’t forgive Lorenzino for the murder of his son-in-law.
After the death of Alessandro, power in Florence remained in the Medici family, however, it passed from the senior line to the junior line with Cosimo I de’ Medici becoming the new Duke.