Researching Alessandro

Emma Newman, University of Sheffield History student and SURE bursary holder, explains why this is a fascinating topic

In some ways, the process of history is similar to an archaeological investigation. You peel back the top soil, dig deeper as you realise you may have a promising site, scrape away at the beautiful but irritating objects that refuse to budge from the earth, and finally, you piece together the artefacts and try to make sense of the enigma that you’re presented with.

One of the reasons that ‘Project Alex’ is so fascinating to work on is that surprisingly little has been written about the first black Western head of state. His six, turbulent years of rulership (and before that, his teenage years) span some of the most exciting and important points in European history. The first Medici pope, Leo X, begins his pontificate in 1513; Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517, igniting the Protestant Reformation; Charles V and Francis I play out their dynastic rivalries in a series of devastating wars; and, of course, the Renaissance continues to flourish across Italy and elsewhere.

Given that Alessandro’s career was set against this backdrop of a Europe in flux (and given the foreign intervention in his climb to power), it is strange that historians have chosen to ignore it, or at best briefly gloss over it. His mixed race heritage, and the fact that Pope Clement VII chose him over his cousin Ippolito to succeed to the Florentine dukedom, alone constitute a serious examination of his life. Some of the issues that we must scrape away at, archaeologist-like, are: how did sixteenth-century Italians view race and ethnicity? Did race impact the perception of a person, or did socio-economic background matter above all else? Did accusations of Alessandro’s rule – and there were many – focus on his African blood, or were there more complex reasons behind them?

There is a great deal of research to be done on Renaissance racial discourse, but so far the evidence points to the accusations against him being founded not on his race but on the idea that he was a tyrant, comparable to Nero or Caesar, who had destroyed the ‘natural’ liberty of Florence. But of course, every powerful man has his enemies, especially if you’re a Medici, and appealing to the Florentine sense of liberty would have been an effective way of turning the tide of popular opinion against the duke. Alessandro’s enemies came in the form of the Florentine exiles, lead by Filippo Strozzi, and this group of highly influential men began to mythologise themselves as the ‘defenders of republican liberty.’

We must be aware of these myths and attempt to look beyond them as we try to understand the true nature of Alessandro’s character and his rule. But sometimes, understanding the myths can be just as exciting and interesting as getting to the heart of the truth. Alessandro’s ‘afterlives’ in negative propaganda have contributed somewhat to his being side-stepped in history, and there is little in English historical writing on the practicalities of his rule. During this project, I would like to learn more about how well-founded the allegations of tyranny were, why historians have largely ignored this fascinating character, and what led to him being so defamed. In this blog I will attempt to break down some of these questions, along with exploring some of the social and cultural elements of Renaissance Florentine history.

Further reading:

Baker, N. S., ‘Writing the Wrongs of the Past: Vengeance, Humanism, and the Assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 38 (2007), pp. 307-327 (£)

Earle, T. F., and Lowe, K. J. P., Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (New York, 2010)

Hannaford, I., Race: The History of an Idea in the West (London, 1996)


2 thoughts on “Researching Alessandro

  1. I’m very interested in finding out more about the paintings of Alessandro. There are some paintings in the V&A.
    I’m going to see if I can find out a bit more about the artists and report back on how they depicted Alessandro, it might help towards building up a better ‘picture’ of him.

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