Free Thinking Festival, 8 November 2015

Very excited to announce that I’ll be recording an Essay on Alessandro de’ Medici for BBC Radio 3 live at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead on Saturday 8 November. You can book tickets here. I’ll post a broadcast date as soon as I have one. There are also lots more exciting events, so check out the full programme.

You can now download the Essay as a podcast here.

Seminar paper, London, 16 March

I’ll be giving a paper about my research at the Society for Court Studies seminar in London on Monday 16 March, 6pm, at New York University, 6 Bedford Square, WC1. Entitled ‘Creating a court in 1530s Florence: the material world of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici’, it will explore the politics of Alessandro’s wardrobe and the wider material culture of this new court – from masquerading costumes to ceremonial dress and beyond. For more details see

The ‘first black head of state’?

Was Alessandro de’ Medici the ‘first black head of state’ in the modern West? Last week, the Medici Archive Project asked on its Facebook page what readers made of this ‘provocative thesis’, published most recently in an article by Runoko Rashidi on

I have some views on this question, but they’re a bit long for Facebook, so I’m posting them here. This post comes with an important caveat: I’m only part-way through my research and this is not in any way a final conclusion. But here goes:

There are really two questions here, and we should pull them apart. Question One is ‘was Alessandro a man of African heritage’? Now, the way to settle that with some certainty would be by DNA testing, but in the absence of a DNA test, we have the visual sources, and at the moment on the basis of the visual sources I’d say ‘more likely than not’. I won’t go through why I think that here in part because I have work still to do and in part because I use these sources as a case-study in teaching and I want my students to work the question through for themselves.

Question Two, however, is ‘was Alessandro perceived as “black” in his own time’? And there the arguments get more complex. Alessandro was called a ‘mulazzo’ (mulatto) in his lifetime, but this was not necessarily or even probably a reference to race. At the time, the term could be used in discussions of racial mixing (as it was by Giulio Landi, a friend of Alessandro’s cousin and rival Ippolito, in 1534), but it was also used to refer to bastards. Contemporary writers made a great deal of Alessandro’s illegitimacy, so when they used this terminology it seems much more likely that it was in that context. (Landi’s text implies that his readers are unlikely to be familiar with the racial-mixing meaning.)

But (I said it was complicated)… Alessandro was perceived as ‘manifestly illegitimate on account of his mother’ (those are the words of Ippolito de’ Medici; others wrote similar things). There is general agreement that his mother was of very low social status, either a household servant/slave, or a peasant, or both at different points in her life. Renaissance people did think there were bodily differences between people of differing social status. It would be fair to say that some of those around Alessandro saw him as coming from inferior stock, though their arguments were not linked to the colour of Alessandro’s skin (which is almost never commented on in the texts).

So, is it okay to say that Alessandro de’ Medici was ‘the first black head of state in the modern West’? Well, before I was a historian I was a journalist, and the journalist in me says ‘yes, that’s a good headline, it makes readers sit up and pay attention, let’s use it’. I’ve used this phrase myself when I wanted a quick way to attract attention to the topic. But then the historian in me says ‘well, you know, it’s a bit misleading because even if we agree that he likely has some African heritage his contemporaries didn’t see him as “black”‘. However, the historian in me also understands that the legacy of European racism means there are very good reasons why people today want to highlight that early modern Europe was by no means an all-white place. If adopting Alessandro helps that cause, then is it such a bad thing to do?

Comments welcome!

Coming Soon: The Assassin’s Masquerade

Saturday 27 September, 7.30pm, at Castle House, Sheffield.

An immersive performance with music from Hector Sequera and his ensemble. Step back in time and join a masquerade in sixteenth-century Florence where anything might happen.

pontormo venus masks

A detail of masks from Pontormo’s Venus, a painting Alessandro commandeered for his palace.

We’re keen to see as many party-goers as possible dressed up for the Assassin’s Masquerade. Feel free to wear what you like – you’re not obliged to stay in period – but if you need some inspiration, here are some ideas from the archives.

We know a lot about how the Medici court dressed up from their wardrobe records. One box of costumes included:

6 masks for peasants; 5 masks for women; 3 masks for Moors; one mask for a Moor with a beard; one Turkish-style mask; one mask for a hermit with a big beard; a horse-hair wig and a red beard.

The words for ‘red beard’ in Italian are Barba rossa: the nickname of an Ottoman admiral. It’s quite possible that this was a ‘pirate party’, with a Mediterranean battle theme.

At another masquerade, named or implied characters were rustics or countryfolk, peasants and gypsies. References to turbans and ‘eastern’ cloth suggest that this event might allude either to the contemporary conflict with the Ottoman Empire, and/or to the fashionable chivalric poems Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso, romances set in a world of warfare between Christians and Moors at the time of the Emperor Charlemagne.

Fabrics for masquerading costumes were often rich: taffeta, satins and silks feature in the lists. Foreign styles might be worn to honour a visiting dignitary: when Alessandro de’ Medici’s fiancée Margaret of Austria came to Florence in 1533, half-a-dozen Spanish-style dresses were made up, five in taffeta and one in damask, for the celebrations. However, they were later recycled for another masquerade – into nun’s habits.

Casting now: Festival of the Mind performance, 27 September

We’re now casting for ‘The Assassin’s Masquerade’, our Festival of the Mind performance. This will be held on the evening of Saturday 27 September, in Sheffield. We’re looking for amateur performers aged 18+ to participate in a devised event based on historical research – check out the site’s pages for an idea of the period and place. Ideally you’ll have some performing experience (though not necessarily in a devised/immersive format). You’ll need to be available all day on 27 September and for early evening rehearsals in the two weeks preceding. If you’re interested, get in touch via the contact form.

Saturday 28 June: a performance workshop

Calling singers, dancers and actors, age 16-19! Join us to help recreate the dramatic history of 1530s Florence in ‘The Assassin’s Masquerade’.

This workshop is the first step in devising a public performance for Sheffield’s ‘Festival of the Mind’ in September. Join us for an exciting day of drama and history hosted by the University of Sheffield, from 10-4 on Saturday 28 June at the University of Sheffield Students Union.

This promises to be a great event that can give you practical experience in research and performance and – if you’re thinking of applying to university – enhance your UCAS application. A participant in our pilot event said: ‘‘The re-enactment of the masquerade performance really brought the history to life!!’

Some places will be available on the day but please tell us you’re coming in advance, if possible, by filling in this online form.

Coming September 2014 – The Assassin’s Masquerade

We’re delighted that as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind in September 2014 we’ll be creating a new performance around words and music from the court of Alessandro de’ Medici. We’re currently recruiting two student interns to work on the project (posts open only to University of Sheffield students). We’ll hold a workshop for performers aged 16-25 in late June and a small group will be selected to participate in the Festival of the Mind itself. More details of those events soon.

If you’re a University of Sheffield student and would like to apply for an internship please download the information here: Project Alex internships March 2014.

BBC Radio Four – In Our Time

Very exciting news: Dr Catherine Fletcher, project lead, was on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time on Boxing Day talking about the Medici family. The programme looked at their rise to power in Florence as bankers and politicians, the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII, through to Alessandro’s rule and the consolidation of the Grand-Duchy of Tuscany. The podcast’s now available to download from the In Our Time website. Listen out and let us know what you think!