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.