January 5, 2008

January 5 | Alessandro de' Medici

July 22, 1510 - January 6, 1537: Age 26

Alessandro de' Medici was the Duke of Penne and the Duke of Florence. He ruled Florence from 1930 until his death in 1537, making him one of the most powerful men in Europe. An illegitimate son of the powerful Medici family, he was one of the last males of the "elder branch" of the powerful family. Acknowledged by Lorenzo II de' Medici, many scholars today believe that he was in fact the son of Giulio de' Medici, who became Pope Clement VII in 1523. His mother was an African servant named Simonetta da Collavechio.

Until recently, stories about Alessandro generally centred around his licentious lifestyle. According to Malcolm Forbes in They Went That-a-Way, he "organized sexual orgies, raided convents and invaded private homes in search of new women, and murdered those he considered to be his opponents." Today, views have shifted. Current evaluations of his career emphasize the political difficulties he was facing (a powerful republican faction opposed him in Florence) and present his sexual adventures as something not far out of the norm for his class and his times.

Why? I believe it is because he was half black. He is recognized today as the first African who held high office in Europe. It makes sense to re-evaluate his career in a way that makes him seem less...diabolical. The portrait at top is the typical portrait used to illustrate articles about him....but the image at right is being used more and more. Google his image using this link, and you'll see the range of colour tones visible in his portrait — often the same portrait is presented in darkened or lightened form.

I really don't know who to believe. Reading about Alessandro de' Medici is a bit like reading about two different people. Was his father Lorenzo, or Giulio? Was he black, or white? Was he a bastard, or does his acknowledgement make him legitimate? Was he a wicked libertine, or an energetic young man sowing his wild oats?

What I do know is that he had an interesting death. His best buddy was a poor and distant cousin named Lorenzino. Intensely jealous of his powerful cousin, Lorenzino got as close to him as possible, plotting to kill him and seize his power.

His opportunity came during the New Year's carnival in 1537. He persuaded Alessandro to come to his rooms without a bodyguard, in order to meet a certain beautiful woman. While Alessandro was waiting alone, he got rather drunk and passed out. Lorenzino returned with a paid assassin and plunged his sword into his cousin's back. Alessandro jumped up, yelling, and grabbed Lorenzino, who tried to stop his cries by pushing his fingers into his mouth. Alessandro bit his fingers to the bone. The accomplice rushed forward and tried to intervene, but accidentally wounded Lorenzino slightly instead. Then Lorenzino managed to sink a dagger deep into Alessandro's side, and the accomplice slit his throat.

While they were cleaning the blood from their hands and arms Lorenzino told the assassin who it was he had just killed. Terrified, the man ran away to confess. Lorenzino panicked and ran away too; away from Florence, all the way to France, where he lived safe from reprisal another 12 years (he was murdered in Venice in 1547 by another cousin, Cosimo).

Sources: Wikipedia; Great People of Color; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

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