Who Was the 1st Black Duke?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Alessandro de' Medici, by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1560 (Wikipedia Commons)

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 31: Who was the first black head of state in modern Western history? Hint: It wasn't the Duke of Earl.

I discovered the answer to the question above while visiting the Walker Art Museum's exhibition "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe," now at Princeton University. I was astonished when I encountered Bronzino's "Portrait of Duke Alessandro de' Medici," a mulatto by the sight of him who, the exhibit claimed, also happened to be a member of one of the most powerful families in history and the first Duke of Florence almost 500 years ago! 


Fascinated, I hurried home to see if Joel A. Rogers had included him in his various compilations of famous black people, many of whom were mixed race, liked this man appeared to be. Sure enough, Rogers listed him both in his 100 Amazing Facts and in Volume II of his The World's Great Men of Color. His conclusion startled me: "That Alessandro was a tyrant there is no doubt whatever," a remarkably frank assessment from Rogers, who had a tendency to romanticize the achievements of just about every person of even the proverbial "one drop" whom he discovered hidden in the shadows of world history. I wanted to know more about this man. Here are the highlights of what I learned.

A Pivotal Potentate

Like the first black president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, and our first black president, Barack Obama, Alessandro de' Medici (1511-1537) — the first black head of state in the history of the modern Western world — was a mulatto. He was the son of an African slave and one of two Medici males, either a duke or a future pope. With the latter's blessing, Alessandro served as duke himself — of Florence — from the age of 19 to his assassination at age 26 at the hands of his cousin. The reason the cousin gave: Alessandro was a tyrant out of step with his times, a military ruler in a republican age. 


Actually, Alessandro was a pivotal change agent in Florence's form of government — and not for the better: His promotion to Duke was the fateful moment when republican government in Florence came to an end. As the art historian Paul Kaplan explained to me in an email, "The Medici had risen to power in Florence in the 1430s, but they were not able to obtain an official title to go with their supreme political authority in the city until 1529, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg promised the Medici Pope, Clement VII, that he would make Alessandro the Duke of Florence. Alessandro actually returned to Florence as ruler in 1531, and in 1532 his hereditary ducal title was confirmed by the Emperor." The Medici clan retained this position until 1737.

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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.


  In 1530, after an 11-month siege by imperial forces seeking to end republican rule, Florence surrendered, allowing Alessandro's reign to begin (Florence and other city-states were more like small countries than cities at that time; "Italy" was a geographical description rather than a country, in the sense that we understand that term today). A year later, under Clement's order, Alessandro was made hereditary duke and quickly assumed immense political power. In the process, he also made a number of powerful enemies, many who went into exile to Venice.

Upon the advice of his sponsor, Pope Clement VII, Alessandro, among other things, decreased the number of open government positions in Florence, a move that angered patrician families who depended on such posts for their income and status. He also was charged with removing "the great bell" from the Palazzo Signorina used to convene Parlamenti and with confiscating the private arms of citizens. Others accused him of routinely imprisoning his opponents and murdering "two men with his own hands," as Brackett reports in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, while others accused him of "using his power to sexually exploit the citizenry," Valdes writes, including allegations that he frequented brothels, seduced his subjects' wives and daughters, and nuns. Alessandro's reputation as a tyrant, like his fate, was sealed.


When his patron, Pope Clement VII, died in 1534, Alessandro's world began its inevitable slide to self-destruction, set in motion, in part, by his plans to construct a large military base in the middle of Florence (the "Fortezza de Basso") to be manned by foreign troops. A year later, Alessandro's cousin, Ippolito, was poisoned, just after being appointed Florence's ambassador to Charles V in hopes of seeking Alessandro's ouster. For this reason, Alessandro was presumed to be the architect of his cousin's assassination.

In 1536, Charles V, however, demonstrated his support of Alessandro by allowing him to marry his illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria. (By this time, Alessandro had fathered two children, a son named Giulio, and a daughter named Giulia, with his mistress, Taddea Malespina.) But the emperor's support was to no avail: In 1537, Alessandro was assassinated by his cousin, Lorenzaccio ("wicked Lorenzo") de' Medici, who later claimed that he was able to trick Alessandro away from his bodyguards by setting up a sexual trap. In a 1540 publication in which he defended his actions, Lorenzaccio accused Alessandro of tyranny, sexual improprieties and, incredibly, of poisoning his own mother, for which there is no evidence. After fleeing Florence, Lorenzaccio was himself murdered 12 years later. 

This image was lost some time after publication.

Alessandro's children, Giulio and Giulia, were raised by Alessandro's successor, Cosimo de' Medici. Giulia became Princess of Ottojano, and Giulio became First Admiral of the Knights of San Stephano, founded to fight the Turks. Through their offspring, according to Mario Valdes, "The greater majority of the noble houses of Italy can today trace their ancestry back to Alessandro de' Medici," a black man, and "so can a number of other princely families of Europe," including the Habsburgs.


DNA Won't Lie?

In perhaps the most surprising twist of all, Mario Valdes reports that researchers from the University of Florence are now conducting an exhaustive investigation of the remains inside the de' Medici sarcophagus in the Chapel of San Lorenzo, where Alessandro is buried. Even after all of these centuries, and an impressive amount of visual and textual evidence, according to Valdes, "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." In the meantime, there are the Renaissance portraits of Alessandro and his daughter, Giulia, both clearly of African descent, now on display in the exhibit brilliantly curated by the Walker Art Museum's Dr. Joaneath Spicer. Take the trip to Princeton now through June 9 and decide for yourself. I did.


As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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