In a recent interview, the African American actor Wendell Pierce revealed he had once been told by the head of casting at a Hollywood studio: ‘I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people then.’ The story was repeated on social media with a mixture of horror and hilarity, many responding — as Pierce himself did — ‘You ever heard of Othello?’
Yet the head of casting’s comments represent a common misconception and a significant gap in historical memory. Black Africans have been a visible presence in European life for centuries — and not only as slaves. In the 16th century, there were black musicians, such as Henry VIII’s trumpeter, John Blanke. There were black scholars, such as the Spanish poet and professor of Latin Juan Latino. There were black holy men, such as St Benedict of Palermo. There were entirely ordinary black people: a 1565 collection of etchings of 72 Flemish peasants, apparently based on the paintings of Pieter Brueghel, included three distinctly African faces. And it seems there was at least one black (or mixed-race) head of state: Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, husband to a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and half-brother to the Queen of France.
Alessandro was born in 1511 or 1512. His mother was an enslaved African or part-African woman; his father was Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino, the last legitimate heir to the main branch of the Medici family. There were rumours at the time that Alessandro’s real father was Lorenzo’s cousin Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII. This would be irresistible to a writer of fiction — making Alessandro perhaps the only person in history to be the offspring of a Pope and an African slave.
As a writer of history, Catherine Fletcher accepts the more likely story that he was Lorenzo’s son. Even so, Clement’s devotion to Alessandro brought the young prince many of his luckiest breaks. His cousin and lifelong rival Ippolito de’ Medici, the other illegitimate hope of the dynasty, grudgingly accepted a position as a cardinal while Alessandro became a duke. It would not end there: this account of the scions’ struggle against each other and the world bursts with stabbings, poisonings, duels, eye-gougings, arquebus shootouts and people being run through with swords.
Fletcher’s approach is scholarly yet dramatic, immersed in Renaissance glamour. In 1530, Alessandro attended the first coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Bologna. Fletcher sets the scene: Alessandro’s men wore livery of ‘shimmering peacock purple’ and ‘dark, fiery red’; he wore ‘dark damask lined with wolfskin’ and was honoured to carry the orb, ‘a golden globe adorned with gems dividing it into Asia, Africa and Europe’. Perhaps Alessandro’s racially mixed appearance symbolically underlined the emperor’s claim to global power as he took the Iron Crown.
Charles V became close to Alessandro and allowed his own illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria, to marry him. Had it resulted in living heirs, this Medici-Habsburg match might have had major implications for history. Alessandro’s half-sister Catherine de’ Medici — his father’s only legitimate child — had already married into the French Valois family, the Habsburgs’ great rivals, and would go on to become the most powerful woman in Europe.
‘It was the misfortune of Alessandro de’ Medici to be assassinated twice,’ Fletcher writes, ‘first with a sword, then with a pen.’ Accounts of his life by those who benefited from his death, and by generations of European historians who despised his race, portrayed him as ugly, stupid and cruel; a tyrant and a murderer. He probably did order a murder or two, but that was hardly out of turn for a Renaissance prince. Fletcher does a thorough job of debunking all the other allegations, creating a portrait of an intelligent, politically skilled man with a sense of social responsibility, providing dowries for poor families in Florence. He loved dogs, hunting and art. His mistresses included a wealthy widow who gave him two children. His relationship with his wife was generous, considerate and affectionate on both sides.
Alessandro seems to have had a defiant sense of humour about his origins and status. His wardrobe contained an elaborate Turkish costume. His contemporary Henry VIII also dressed up as a Turk, but he was legitimate and white; the King of England was not inviting a shockingly direct comparison to the Ottoman sultans, whose mothers were slaves. ‘Were Alessandro and his courtiers mocking the critics of the duke’s low birth?’ Fletcher asks. For a carnival in 1534, Alessandro and his entourage dressed as gypsies and peasants. Another snook was cocked at those who derided his favour for the lower classes: ‘It is as if Alessandro and his court were saying yes, we know what you say about us, and we don’t care much.’
This insouciant streak may have been Alessandro’s undoing. In 1537, his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici offered to facilitate a liaison with a noblewoman. The duke let his guard down and waited for the lady in Lorenzino’s chamber — but was ambushed and hacked to death. He was still only in his mid-twenties. His reputation did not begin to recover until he was championed by African-American writers in the early 20th century. Catherine Fletcher’s engrossing biography is a tremendous step forward in our knowledge of this intriguing man. Perhaps even the casting directors of Hollywood will one day concede that there were, in fact, black people in 16th-century Europe — and some of their stories are as gripping as any ‘Shakespeare movie’.