Alessandro de Medici – “Il Moro”

Portrait of Alessandro de' Medici (detail), after Jacopo da Pontormo, about 1550. Museum no. CAI.171. Ionides Bequest

Do you like fairy tales?

Have you heard the one about the black slave girl living in the great house of a noble lord as a helper to his great lady?

Of how she slept with his younger 17 year old nephew and bore a bastard son?  Of how the 17 year old father would go onto become high priest and her son would become a great lord himself, whose descendants would marry into all of the great houses of the fairy land?

Meet Alessandro de Medici – first Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany.  “Il Moro.”

Despite the many portraits of this 16th century Italian Renaissance figure, his African heritage is rarely, if ever, mentioned.   Down through the centuries, most scholars have accepted that Alessandro de’ Medici’s mother was a black slave woman and she was so identified by Alessandro’s contemporaries.  Lots of royals however, as well as art historians have difficulty coming to terms with this; a “mulatto” Medici scion from whom descends some of Europe’s most titled families, including two branches of the Hapsburgs.

Alessandro was born in 1510 to a slave woman in the house of Lorenzo the Magnificent;  after her subsequent marriage to a muleteer, she is simply referred to in existing documents as Simonetta da Collavechio. – (Simonetta from the town of Collavechio – she didn’t have a family name).

Historians today are convinced that Alessandro was fathered by the seventeen year old Giulio de Medici who later became Pope Clement VII.  Giulio was the nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

On being elected Pope in 1523, Cardinal Giulio was forced to relinquish the lordship of Florence but he appointed a regent for his thirteen year old son Alessandro who had just been created Duke of Penna, and a nephew, Ipollito. Even though both were bastards, they were the last of what has come to be referred to as the elder line of the family.

Republicanism had grown in Florence under the regent and when Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, the Florentines took advantage of the situation to install a more democratic form of government and both Alessandro and Ipollito fled. When peace was finally made two years later between the Papal and the Imperial factions, Charles V agreed to militarily restore Florence to the Medici. After a siege of eleven months Alessandro was finally brought back as the Emperor’s designated head of state.

In 1532, the new Florentine constitution declared Alessandro hereditary Duke of Florence – the first black prince of a European state.

Though his common sense and his feeling for justice won his subjects’ affection, those in sympathy with the exiled Republican opposition hated Alessandro; unfortunately he was born into a changing world.

With the death of his father, the Pope, in 1534, the exiles attempted to oust the Duke Alessandro from Florence. But the Emperor decided to uphold Alessandro and in an obvious show of support, gave Alessandro his own illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria, as wife.  The bastard son of the Papacy would marry the bastard daughter of the Emperor.

Despite the security this kind of support should have given him, Alessandro was finally assassinated a few months after his wedding by Lorenzaccio (“the bad Lorenzo) de Medici, a distant cousin who had ingratiated himself in order to win his confidence.

Though married to the Emperor’s illegitimate daughter,  Alessandro seems to have remained faithful to his mistress, Taddea Malespina, who bore his only children, Giulio and Giulia.

As for Lorenzzachio,  lthough he claimed to have done it for the Republic (he was called by many Brutus de Medici) the populace failed to arise to overthrow the Ducal government and Lorenzaccio fled.   He was himself eventually murdered some twelve years later.

Although the initial reaction to the assassination on the part of the Ducal party had been to set up a regency for Alessandro’s four year-old son, Giulio, they instead turned to Cosimo of the junior branch of the family who they felt would be able to bring some equilibrium to the political instability that confronted them.

Cosimo raised Alessandro’s two illegitimate children in his own household and continued as their guardian until adulthood. Despite the awkward presence at his court of a potential pretender to the duchy of Florence, Cosimo apparently regarded his young wards with true affection.

Giulio married Lucrezia Gaetani in 1561 and a year later, Cosimo appointed him First Admiral of the Knights of San Stephano, an order especially founded to fight the Turks.

Giulio’s sister, Giulia, was first married to Francesco Cantelmo, the Count of Alvito and the Duke of Popoli. When her husband died unable to give her children a few years later, Cosimo then married Giulia off in 1559 to a first cousin of his, Bernardino de Medici.  Eventually she and her husband moved to Naples where, at an enormous expense to themselves, they acquired both the title and lands of the principality of Ottaiano.

Through his two illegitimate children born with his mistress,  a majority of the noble houses of Italy as well as the Hapsburgs can today trace their ancestry back to Alessandro de Medici, the Black Prince.  Raised as Medici, their descendants married princes and princesses, dukes and countesses throughout the centuries.

A 14th great grand daughter Rosemary, Princess of Salm Salm would  marry Hubert Salvator von Hapsburg, Archduke of Austria in 1926.  Another, Yolanda, Princess of Ligne would marry Karl von Hapsburg in 1950.

Camillo, Prince Borghese would  marry Napoleon’s sister Pauline in 1803.  And Edvart, Count of Limburg-Strum would marry Helen, daughter of the Count of Paris in 1957.

His ethnicity has usually been ignored, perhaps because historians were uncomfortable with the fact that Alessandro’s descendants married into eminent houses all over Europe.  The blood of the young Black Prince flows deep in the blood of Europe’s royalty.  Perhaps that is why he is little studied and little remembered.

Cameo, Alessandro de'Medici, Duke of Florence, possibly Polo, Domenico di Florence (city), 1532-1537, Plasma (green chalcedony) in gold setting. Museum no. CIS 7553-1861




About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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9 Responses to Alessandro de Medici – “Il Moro”

  1. beetleypete says:

    A nice history lesson, Frank. I have always been confused by the Medici and The Borgia complex family struggles. I should have read more about them when I was younger.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  2. Historian Thomas Guglielmo has written several books about southern Italians having African “blood.”

    In 2003 he wrote Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America and White on Arrive: Italians, Race, Color and Power in Chicago.

    More recently DNA testing reveals that Sicilians have 10% sub-Saharan DNA:

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi Doc – I have never doubted the that southern Italians and Sicilians have north African and sub-Saharan blood. It’s obvious. One need only go to Sicily and look around. Here in America, having one drop of “non-white” blood makes you non-white, despite your actual skin color. “Race” is made in America.

      It’s interesting that contemporaries of Allessandro never questioned his racial background or that his mother was black. The aristocracy did discriminate against him on the basis that his mother was of low birth and that he was illegitimate.

      Regards and thanks as usual.


    • Vince says:

      That DNA testing is outdated and inaccurate. Sicilians and Southern Italians have almost no African blood at all (especially sub-Saharan/black), and they look the same as Northern Italians.


  3. Fascinating history!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. kiwimarni says:

    I enjoyed reading and learning your history blog about Alessandro de Medici.


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