Alessandro de’ Medici: Renaissance race card?

Mario de Valdes y Cocom
October 8, 2009

In a sarcophagus in the Chapel of San Lorenzo, the one surmounted by the brooding figure of Michelangelo's Il Pensieroso, and on which two of his even more famous nudes recline, is interred the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici, called Il Moro (the Moor).

 

The contents of the sarcophagus are slated to be included in perhaps the most curious investigations yet to be undertaken in Florence: the systematic exhumation and forensic study on the remains of the family that ruled it for some four centuries.

 

The investigation is currently being conducted by a group of paleopathological and historico-medical researchers from the University of Florence. One of their many objectives is to settle the controversy still being fought out behind closed doors in the great museums and the hallowed halls of academia over the racial identity of Il Duca Alessandro.

 

Although most historians, both contemporary and modern, have described Alessandro's mother as a black slave in the Medici household, a few modern scholars take exception. They claim that the African features so obvious in all his portraits were ordered by Cosimo, the cousin who succeeded him after his assassination in 1537, to prevent Alessandro's line from ever contending with his own for the suzerainty of the city state of Florence and the region of Tuscany.

 

However, those scholars who are convinced that the first Duke, the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII, was black, point to the ‘who's who' of royal and noble families descended from him through the centuries as the true reason behind the mounting tension in this increasingly important but still unsettled argument.

 

Whatever the exhumation reveals will be of major interest no matter the outcome. If genetic tests prove that Alessandro was not black, then the issue becomes not an exposé on the African ancestry of so many of Europe's great houses, but evidence of a conspiracy. 

 

What such a discovery would suggest, instead, is the rather appalling case of purported African origins being used to denigrate or politically incapacitate a branch of the family. If this turns out to be the case, then the fact that the dynasty that devised such a systematic propaganda campaign against a collateral branch of its own was one of the most influential and powerful in Europe, and that such a virulent form of racism had its origins in the premier city state of the Renaissance should keep academics in the field of social and ethnic studies wagging their chins for years.

 

What kept Alessandro de' Medici in the obscurity to which he has been relegated for so long? What undoubtedly contributed to the situation was the move in 1871 of the mayor and his office to the Sala Clemente VII in Palazzo Vecchio. Whether intentional or not, it blocked the general public's access to one of the palace's most important and significant rooms. The iconography of the sumptuous audience hall's decorations commemorate the transition in status of the Medici from a banking family to that of a royal one, beginning with Alessandro in 1530-a message that the local people, steeped in their city's history, could easily read.

 

In the many portraits included in the murals covering the ceiling and all four walls of the Sala, there are at least three of the first Duke that are plainly recognizable. With his African features, he has a prominent place in Giorgio Vasari's magnificently illustrated narrative of this pivotal period in the dynastic history of the de' Medici.

 

The first and the central image records Alessandro's attendance at the coronation of the Emperor Charles V by Pope Clement. The next, in a lunette of smaller dimensions, is his installation as Duke of Florence. The third, framed similarly, celebrates his marriage to Margaret of Austria, the emperor's daughter. If he was indeed the son of the pope, as most authorities are convinced and as these scenes in the Sala Clemente apparently support, then this is the only representation we have of the marriage of a papal bastard to an imperial one.

 

Four years ago the then mayor, Leonardo Domenici, graciously gave up his suite, claiming it was too beautiful an artistic attraction to remain hidden and that its potential for the tourist industry should not be overlooked.

 

On the Florentine leg of her official visit to Italy in February 2009, Domenici gave Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and the delegation travelling with her, a personal tour of the Sala Clemente. The press reported that he delivered a talk on Giovanni Stradano's fresco of the Siege of Florence by Charles V in 1529.

 

However, there was no mention that Domenici drew the attention of his visitors to the portrait of the young black man looking down on them from the ceiling above even though the vignettes in which he is depicted are a direct result of the emperor's assault on the city. They represent the three major articles of the peace accord Clement signed with Charles a few months later in Barcelona: that the pope recognize and crown Charles emperor, that in return the emperor create Alessandro Duke of Florence and, thirdly, that he give Alessandro his daughter's hand in marriage.

 

Hardly a month after the inauguration of President Obama, the United States' first black president, how could Mayor Domenici not realize that he might have made a far greater impression on Ms. Pelosi and the entire world had he pointed out both the royal dignity and political power accorded Alessandro de' Medici as a result of the siege depicted by Stradano?

 

Or perhaps Palazzo Vecchio is hoping that on Mr. Obama's next visit to Italy, Florence will be included in the itinerary. This would, of course, afford Mayor Renzi the unique opportunity and the privilege of introducing to the first African American president the first black head of state in modern western history. 

 

For more on Alessandro de' Medici, see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/medici.html

 

 

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