Alessandro de’ Medici reigned from 1532 to 1537 as the first duke of one of Italy’s greatest city-states. Yet just as he lived in obscurity until his teens in the late 1520s, he has largely been returned to that obscurity by historians ever since.
Why then, asks Catherine Fletcher, has her subject been so ill-served by posterity? He was by all accounts intelligent and charming, and a great patron of the arts; Vasari was a life-long friend. If he was also ruthless and decadent, those qualities hardly make him unique among Renaissance Italian princes. And while it is true that Alessandro was illegitimate, so was his patron, Guilio de’ Medici — who rose to become Pope Clement VII in 1523 — and his chief rival and cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici.
What role, then, does the colour of his skin play in all this? Certainly, racist pseudoscience served to demean Alessandro in the Victorian era, with one 1875 study describing him as having “all the known features of the delinquent amoral constitutional type: proud, arrogant, selfish, sensual . . . a born criminal”.
The irony, as Fletcher shows in The Black Prince of Florence, is that these kind of pejorative racial distinctions are distinctly modern categories of thought. Alessandro’s father was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the duke of Urbino. His mother, Simunetta, was most likely a servant or slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. Although after his death he was given the descriptive sobriquet Alessandro il Moro, no one seems to have thought the complexion of his skin worth disparaging while he was alive — and enemies were not in short supply, not least within his own family.
In fact, Alessandro’s illegitimacy seems to have been a far more potent issue for contemporaries — and for the duke himself. Alessandro would rule on an inheritance dispute that revolved around the birth of a nephew out of wedlock: “For all that he’s a bastard,” he asked the respondent, “is he not made of flesh, and born of a man and woman like you? . . . Does he not have soul and body like all those legitimately born?”
It is his illegitimacy that accounts for the obscurity of his upbringing, then, and familial necessity that accounts for his dazzlingly swift rise to power. Alessandro’s father died in 1519, which made Alessandro’s older cousin Ippolito the focus of the family’s political aspirations in Florence. But when Clement VII suffered a life-threatening illness in the late 1520s, he made Ippolito a cardinal to ensure the family retained its firm grip on the church. Ippolito never forgave him — or Alessandro, who was next in line.
Indeed, Ippolito never stopped scheming to seize Florence for himself, and his complicity in a plot against Alessandro led to his own assassination in 1535, almost certainly on Alessandro’s orders; Fletcher’s more-or-less verbatim account of the assassin’s interrogation and torture makes one of the more astonishing setpieces in the book.
Alessandro would ultimately be murdered by another cousin, Lorenzino, for reasons that remain unclear. It seems unlikely that Lorenzino, regarded by some contemporaries as little more than Alessandro’s pimp, acted on principle; nevertheless, the lurid allegations of despotism and tyranny used to justify the murder have tainted Alessandro’s name ever since.
Fletcher’s first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (2012), was a study of Vatican intrigue that demonstrated her ability to use rarely accessed Italian archives to create a gripping and original account of a well-worn subject. Here she has used the same skills to even greater effect, creating a compelling portrait of a forgotten man — himself both brutal and brutalised — once at the very heart of the Renaissance world order. Her narrative follows the extraordinary arc of Alessandro’s life closely, but also uses it to illuminate the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory.
If we think of the Renaissance courts constructed by the Medici as simply corrupt or venal, however, we are missing the point. They merely commoditised power — and sex and art and information and all things besides, but above all power — to an exquisite degree. The Medicis knew the price of everything, but they knew its value too, right down to the last drop of blood.
This review first appeared in the Financial Times on April 29, 2016