Who Was the 1st Black Duke?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet the scion of a legendary Italian dynasty.

Alessandro de' Medici, by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1560 (Wikipedia Commons)
Alessandro de' Medici, by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1560 (Wikipedia Commons)

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Alessandro’s black African ancestry was captured in various media by contemporary Italian artists, and commented upon by those who knew him and by those who hated him after his death. Yet, until recently, as we might expect, art museum curators and art historians tended to downplay his blackness, perhaps because many royal families, including the Habsburgs, could trace their bloodlines directly to him. But thanks to the research of John K. Brackett, Paul Kaplan, Joaneth Spicer and Mario de Valdes y Cocom (hereafter Mario Valdes), Alessandro’s African ancestry has been generally embraced by scholars. 

Nicknamed “the Moor” and “the mule of the Medici,” the evidence of Alessandro’s African ancestry is, well, as plain as the nose on his face, argues John Brackett. “The written and pictorial evidence are more than sufficient to prove Alessandro’s black African descent,” he writes in a chapter from Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. And Mario Valdes notes that one person described Alessandro’s appearance as “brown [with] thick lips, kinky hair.”

For those still skeptical, according to Valdes, Alessandro’s remains will soon be tested by DNA researchers in Florence determined to find out, once and for all, who, for centuries, has been telling the truth, who’s been hiding it and why. 

Those are just the highlights of this fascinating story! For the juicy details, keep reading.

Who’s the Father?

Between 1494 and 1512, the Medici family was expelled from Florence as part of an ongoing effort to establish a republican form of government there. Alessandro was born in Urbino, Italy, the son of an African woman named Simonetta, a de’ Medici household slave. What historians can’t decide is who Alessandro’s father was: Lorenzo or Giulio de’ Medici. Lorenzo was the Duke of Nemours and ruler of Urbino, while Giulio was a cardinal who would go on to become Pope Clement VII. Most scholars give the nod to Lorenzo, though some seem to savor the titillation of speculating that this black man was the son of a Roman Catholic Pope, because Giulio (who became Pope Clement VII in 1523) took pains to protect and support Alessandro’s troubled and controversial rule, providing fodder for rumors that he was Alessandro’s father.

But Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici’s bloodline was the more impressive: He was the grandson of Lorenzo “The Magnificent,” the ruler to whom Niccolo Machiavelli dedicated his classic work The Prince in 1513. Taking the lead in raising Alessandro, Lorenzo freed Simonetta on the promise that she give up her rights to their illegitimate son. (In Florence at the time of Alessandro’s birth, the slave status of children followed the father, while in much of the rest of Italy slave status followed the mother, just as it did in the United States.) When Lorenzo died, Alessandro was only 8, but his other potential father, future Pope Clement VII, made sure he and his cousin Ippolito had a regent in place to secure their line of the family’s claim to future rule.

A Dynasty Unmade

Now a bit of Italian history …

Medici rule in Florence was the hallmark of monarchy, but a republican movement sought to unseat the family’s traditional power base in 1527, the same year that Emperor Charles V sacked Rome. Between 1527 and 1530, the Medici family was expelled from the city during the Siege of Florence, during which the people adopted a republican form of government. Except in 1529, Charles and Pope Clement VII agreed to the treaty of Barcelona, in which Clement supported Charles V’s title as Holy Roman Emperor while Charles agreed to Clement’s restoration as Pope and to his continuing power over the city of Florence, including a guarantee of the future rule of the city by Alessandro. To placate Alessandro’s allegedly jealous cousin, Ippolito, the Pope made Ippolito a cardinal.