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 AtlantaBlackStar.com.
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?