BY RUNOKO RASHIDI*
We have already discussed in earlier essays the Severan Dynasty of Imperial Rome, the Moors of Spain and Kenneth the Niger of Scotland. But African blood in Europe’s royalty also appears definitely in 16th century Italy. Let us speak now of distinguished African men in the European Renaissance. Indeed, Alessandro de’ Medici, early 16th century Duke of Florence, has the distinction of being the first Black head of state in modern Western history.
According to historian J.A. Rogers, “To students of color discrimination, European history offers no more astonishing figure than Alessandro de’ Medici, `The Moor,’ first reigning Duke of Florence.”
Alessandro de’ Medici (July 22, 1510 – Jan. 6, 1537), called “il Moro” (“the Moor”), was Duke of Penne and Duke of Florence. He was the last member of the senior branch of the Medici family to rule Florence. He was recognized as the only son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent), although many scholars today regard him to be in fact the illegitimate son of Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement VII) — nephew of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Historians believe that he was born to an African woman working in the Medici household identified as Simonetta da Collavechio.
As Duke of Florence, Alessandro, a contemporary of Michelangelo, “became the head of one of the most illustrious families in European history — a family that furnished a long roll of statesmen and patrons of art, as well as three popes, three kings of France, three queens and a mother of one of England’s kings.”
Alessandro was made hereditary Duke of Florence in early 1532. The Florence of Alessandro’s day was rife with political intrigue and the Duke fell victim, sad to say, to an assassination orchestrated by his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici while only in his late 20s in 1537. It was an assassination compared to the murder of Julius Caesar.
Alessandro was survived by his two children with Taddea Malespina. These children were Giulio, a son, and Giulia, a daughter — a painting of which in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, does not fail to portray her African bloodlines. When Giulia, in 1550, at about the age of 15, became engaged to Francesco Cantelmo, the Count of Alvito and the Duke of Popoli, she was provided a dowry equivalent today to about US$8 million.