The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher has recently been reviewed by the Financial Times, The Times, The Spectator, The Economist, and The Tablet.
Writing for the Financial Times, Mathew Lyons calls the biography ‘a compelling portrait of a forgotten man’, which ‘illuminates the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory’. You can read the full review here.
Daisy Dunn reviewed the book for The Times here (£), calling it ‘a well-rounded portrait of the forgotten ruler’, with a narrative that is ‘bold, breathless and full of suspense’.
Alex von Tunzelmann calls the work ‘scholarly yet dramatic, immersed in renaissance glamour’ and ‘as gripping as Othello‘ in The Spectator, available here.
The Economist likens the life of Alessandro de’ Medici to ‘the plot of a Verdi opera’, concluding that ‘it is impossible to finish this medieval melodrama without thinking that it would make a riveting series for an enterprising TV producer’. You can read the full review here.
Jonathan Wright reviewed Fletcher’s work for The Tablet, praising her as a ‘resourceful historian who uses the uncertainty surrounding Alessandro to raise important issues about how we approach neglected or enigmatic historical figures’. He also applauds Fletcher for ‘finally providing the duke with a fair hearing’. The review is available here (£).
You can also read reviews of the book by the Literary Review and The Sunday Times (£).
Julia Bradley talks to Catherine Fletcher about the research process for The Black Prince of Florence, her interest in Black history, and Alessandro de’ Medici’s fashion choices:
You’ve spoken about how seeing Alessandro’s portrait in Florence sparked your interest in him, but how did you go from there to writing a book about him?
I had previously written a book about Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It got some positive reviews, and I was thinking about a next project. I was quite keen to stay in the same period and place, and there’s a figure who links these two stories which is Pope Clement VII, who is known as the Pope who turns down Henry’s request for a divorce. Part of the reason he does that is because he wants to get his family back into power in Florence. So this book is, in a sense, the other side of the Pope’s story. So that was really how I got into writing the book and why it seemed to make sense to do it as a follow up to the first one.
Besides the Palazzo Medici and Palazzo Vecchio, there are numerous locations in Florence that feature in Alessandro’s life. On his entry to Florence in 1531, he visited the church of Santissima Annunziata. In 1533, his fiancée Margaret watched a spectacular religious ritual in the church of San Felice in Piazza and a firework display in the piazza between San Lorenzo and the Palazzo Medici.
Alessandro’s mistress, Taddea Malaspina, lived with her sister Ricciarda in the ex-Palazzo Pazzi on the corner of Via del Proconsolo and Borgo Albizzi, unfortunately it’s not open to the public. Alessandro’s portraits are in the collections of the Uffizi Gallery, but are not always on display: check in advance if you particularly want to see them.
After Alessandro’s death , many of the Medici jewels ended up in his widow Margaret’s hands and passed into the Farnese collections in Naples: those that remained in Florence are in the Silver Museum in the Palazzo Pitti.
Alessandro himself is buried in the same tomb as his father in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo, beneath Michelangelo’s statues of Dawn and Dusk. San Lorenzo was also the location for his wedding to Margaret. Eagle-eyed readers of Latin may spot the reference to him in an inscription on the wall – it’s not obvious! A multimedia display in the San Lorenzo museum shows the route that his great-uncle Pope Leo X took for his 1515 ceremonial entry into Florence.
The tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
In Alessandro de’ Medici’s day, the Palazzo Vecchio was known as the Palazzo della Signoria, or palace of the government/lordship. The name referred to its function as the seat of Florentine government, and it was here that the decisions that would make Alessandro duke of Florence were taken. The removal of the bell that had traditionally been used to call parliaments from the Palazzo tower was seen as symbolic of Alessandro’s tyranny.
Some of the state rooms retain their decoration from the 1530s, although many were altered during the rule of Alessandro’s successor Cosimo I. He followed through on a plan floated under Alessandro and made the Palazzo Vecchio (rather than the Palazzo Medici) his principal residence. An inventory of the palace from the 1550s shows that Cosimo kept a number of hangings that had belonged to his predecessor.
There are several images of Alessandro and his contemporaries in Cosimo’s apartments, including splendid pictures of the two dukes in classicizing dress in the Leo X Room (where you can also spot Ippolito and Catherine de’ Medici). Another depiction of Alessandro is in the Clement VII Room, but this is now the office of the Mayor of Florence and only rarely accessible to visitors.
The courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, featuring the Medici palle (balls) among its decorations.
Of all the Medici sites in Florence, the one most closely associated with Duke Alessandro is the Palazzo Medici, now Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Currently the seat of the Province of Florence, it was the principal Medici family residence from the middle of the fifteenth century. Alessandro lived here from his return to Florence in 1531 until his death.
A selection of rooms in the Palazzo are open to visitors. It’s located on Via Cavour, between the Duomo and San Marco.
The highlight for visitors to the Palazzo today is the Chapel of the Magi, frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli. The procession of the Magi includes many portraits of Medici family members and allies. It is also testimony to the presence of Africans in Renaissance Italy: a black archer is shown among the entourage.
The Palazzo is much changed since the sixteenth century, but a surviving inventory from 1531 recorded many of the furnishings and objects present in Alessandro’s court, ranging from arrases featuring hunting scenes to red silk bedcovers, portraits of saints and a chess set in agate and jasper. It also gave details of the accommodation provided for Alessandro’s courtiers, including the rooms of sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, whose statue of Hercules and Cacus was erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio during Alessandro’s rule.
You can read more about the objects and people in Alessandro’s household in The Black Prince of Florence. The 1531 inventory was edited and published in full (in Italian) by Lazzi and Lulla in Archivio storico italiano 150 (1992), pp. 1201-33. The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi website also features an extensive Mediateca with images and documentation about the palace.
The Palazzo Comunale, Bologna. Photo: Vitold Muratov, used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence.
Alessandro de’ Medici made two important trips to Bologna. The first, in 1529-30, was for the coronation of his future father-in-law as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The second, in 1532, was for a summit between Charles and Pope Clement VII. Clement was the most senior member of the Medici family.
Both Clement and Charles stayed in Bologna’s Palazzo Comunale. This is Bologna’s city hall, and much of it is closed to tourists, but you can visit an art gallery on the second floor. Alessandro was one of Charles’ attendants when he received the Iron Crown of Lombardy in the Palazzo’s chapel. Charles’ main coronation took place in the city’s vast cathedral, the Basilica of San Petronio. It’s well worth a visit.
During the 1529-30 celebrations, Alessandro lodged in Palazzo Manzoli, which he shared with the entourage of Isabella d’Este, marchioness of Mantua. The palazzo was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, but you can see its location, a short walk from the central piazza up Via Zamboni here. To get an impression of what a Renaissance palazzo in Bologna would have looked like, try Palazzo Ghisilardi, which now houses the city’s collection of medieval art.
For a picture of Alessandro, visit the Pinacoteca Nazionale, a little further up Via Zamboni. There he appears in Vasari’s Cena di San Gregorio Magno, standing behind St Gregory, who has the features of Clement VII.
The curving staircase and clock are later additions to the Poggio villa.
The Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano was one of Alessandro’s favourite retreats. He lived here when he first came to Florence in 1525, and when he returned to rule the city in 1531 he often used it as a base for hunting.
Located in the countryside about thirteen miles from Florence, the villa was one of several Medici properties in the hills surrounding the city. Florence can be fiendishly hot in summer and country houses offered its wealthier residents an attractive retreat, as well as an opportunity to evoke the villa life of the ancient Romans.
Features of the Poggio villa today that would have been there in Alessandro’s time include the blue-and-white ceramic freeze from the facade, Francabigio’s fresco of Cicero returning from exile (an allegory of Cosimo the Elder’s return to Florence in 1434), and Andrea del Sarto’s fresco of Julius Caesar receiving tribute from Egypt (a reference to Lorenzo The Magnificent’s gifts from the Egyptian Sultan). Pontormo’s fresco of Vertumnus and Pomona would also have been visible in the 1530s.
The villa has been considerably changed since the sixteenth century, but remains a charming place to visit. It is one of the group of civic museums in Florence and its official website is here.