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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 18, 2018
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It was the eve of Epiphany, 1537, a night of the most dazzling moonlight. Alessandro de’ Medici, duke of Florence, had an assignation. His cousin Lorenzino, little Lorenzo, had promised him the favors of Caterina de’ Ginori.
Alessandro’s enemies called Lorenzino his pimp.
Caterina, it was said, was beautiful and virtuous. She was married, but tonight her husband was many miles to the south in Naples on business. Lorenzino had assured Alessandro, lord of the city, that Caterina could be persuaded.
After dinner that night, Lorenzino had explained his plan. Caterina lived on the narrow street just behind the Palazzo Medici. Alessandro should make excuses to his friends and head for the privacy of Lorenzino’s palace apartment rather than his own. Lorenzino would bring Caterina in discreetly, by the back door, to protect her reputation.
Clad in a cloak of fine Neapolitan silk, lined with sable, the Duke headed out with four friends. In public he usually wore a doublet lined with fine chain mail to protect himself from any enemy quick with a knife. But there was no need for such precautions on a short walk to meet the pretty Caterina. Arriving in the Piazza di San Marco, just a few minutes away from his home, Alessandro dismissed all his companions except one. His servant l’Unghero was to keep watch on the comings and goings at Lorenzino’s from the Sostegni house across the road. L’Unghero, lazy and familiar with the Duke’s womanizing, expected a long wait. He decided not to watch but to take himself off to sleep.
There was a warm fire burning in Lorenzino’s chamber. Alessandro took off his sword and threw himself down on the bed. He too had decided to take a nap.
When Lorenzino came into the room and found his cousin asleep he took Alessandro’s sword and quickly wound the belt around its hilt, so that it could not easily be drawn from its sheath. He placed it carefully by the bolster, crept out of the chamber and closed the door behind him.
Lorenzino’s companion that night was one Piero di Gioannabbate, known by the curious nickname Scoronconcolo, a man of low rank whose ears he had filled with his grievances against a certain unnamed courtier. This courtier, Lorenzino told Scoronconcolo, had cheated him and interfered in his business. Scoronconcolo, who owed Lorenzino favors, had promised to deal with Lorenzino’s tormentor, even to kill him. Even if he were a favorite of the Duke’s. Even if he were Christ himself.
“My brother,” said Lorenzino, “now is the time; I have shut that enemy of mine in my chamber, and he is asleep.”
“Let’s go,” said Scoronconcolo.
When they reached the landing, Lorenzino turned to Scoronconcolo and said: “Don’t worry that he’s a friend of the Duke, just make sure you get his hands.”
“That I’ll do,” replied his friend, “even if he’s the Duke himself.”
“Are you ready?” asked Lorenzino cheerfully. “He can’t slip through our fingers now. Let’s go.”
“Let’s go,” said Scoronconcolo.
Lorenzino tried the latch. The door did not open.
He tried again. This second time, he entered.
“My lord, are you asleep?” he asked, and plunged his sword into Alessandro’s stomach.
Alessandro lurched up from the bed and made a dash for the door, seizing a stool to use as a shield, but Scoronconcolo pulled a knife. Slashing down from the left temple, he sliced open the Duke’s left cheek.
Lorenzino pushed Alessandro onto the bed. He used the weight of his own body to force the Duke down. He tried to cover Alessandro’s mouth so he couldn’t scream, but the Duke bit so angrily into his thumb that Lorenzino collapsed beside him.
As the pair grappled, Scoronconcolo drew his sword. Fearful of cutting Lorenzino, he managed only to slash the mattress. Finally he pulled a knife and plunged it into Alessandro’s throat.
It was said that for all the time that Alessandro waited, held down by Lorenzino, for Scoronconcolo to strike, he never wept or pleaded for his life. Nor once did he let go of his cousin’s thumb.
Lorenzino and Scoronconcolo lifted Alessandro’s body from the blood-covered floor, and placed it on the bed. They left it hidden beneath the canopy and went on their way.
The first duke of Florence was dead.
* * * *
It was the misfortune of Alessandro de’ Medici to be assassinated twice: first with a sword, then with a pen. Thanks to Lorenzino, and to the many enemies of the Medici family, Alessandro has gone down in history as a tyrant. Not only did Lorenzino murder the Duke, he wrote an eloquent justification of his actions. He found, too, a sympathetic interviewer in Benedetto Varchi, the historian who later prepared an account of Alessandro’s years on the commission of Cosimo I, Alessandro’s successor as duke. “I will recount this death (about which there are various tales and reports) with greater truth,” wrote Varchi, “having heard it from Lorenzo himself . . . and from Scoronconcolo.” Although the first reports of Alessandro’s death were matter-of-fact Varchi’s story of Lorenzino’s dramatic tyrannicide grips the imagination.
The most famous accounts of Alessandro begin with the tales of his wickedness, in all its bloody glory. His murder, wrote his assassin, was “a deed incumbent on any good citizen.” He was a tyrant like Nero, Caligula or Phalaris. He was a monster, driven by his “innate cruelty and savagery.” What do those words allude to? It has long been said that Alessandro was the son of a Moorish slave, or a “half- Negro” woman. Were Lorenzino’s words a racial insult? The answer is not straightforward. Sixteenth-century people thought about the things we now call “race” and “class” in very different ways than we do today. Moors—Muslims from North Africa and Spain—were part of the ethnic-religious picture in 16th-century Europe, as were Jews, but other racial categories were only just emerging. The Ottoman Empire, which stretched from eastern Hungary through Turkey and along the coast of North Africa, was an ethnically diverse place. Its rulers had themselves portrayed with pale skin, but there were black Turks too, who sometimes appear in the European depictions of the time. In parts of Europe black saints and the black Magus were a feature of 16th-century art, where they pointed to the global reach of Christendom. As European slave-trading in West Africa expanded, black Africans were brought to Italy in increasing numbers: they were stereotyped as uncivilized and inferior.
Yet the modern idea of “race,” which emerged with the Atlantic slave trade, is very different from anything that existed in the 1530s. It may be disconcerting to readers who have grown up with today’s labels and categories that we do not find them in Alessandro’s world. Blood and descent were certainly important; positive qualities were associated with the color white and negative ones with black. Yet while in Spanish and Portuguese, the European languages most associated at the time with slave-trading, the word negro had been used to mean a black person since the 15th century, elsewhere in 16th-century Europe the equivalent words were only just coming into existence. The French noun nègre, meaning a black person, was first recorded in 1516; negro, the Italian equivalent, dates to 1532. When Giulio Landi, an Italian author, discussed the Portuguese colony of Madeira in the 1530s, he made a point of explaining the racial categories used there—Moors, Ethiopians, blacks and mulattoes—to his readers. He did not assume they would be familiar. If you went back in time to early 16th-century Florence and asked whether any given individual was black or white you would probably get a puzzled look. Adjectives like moro, nero, and negro, variations on “black,” were used to refer to dark- or darker-skinned people but did not define a specific ethnicity. In the 16th century “Moor” was a nickname given to all sorts of people. Among them was Ludovico il Moro—ruler of Milan from 1494 to 1499—who is not thought to have had African ancestry at all. For mixed-race people the picture is more complex still. The categorization of people of mixed African and European descent as black—through the “one-drop rule”—was a phenomenon of early 20th-century America. We should not expect to find it in Renaissance Italy. In the Florentine piazza, if you used the word mulatto (which was used to describe Alessandro) a person would understand you but not in straightforwardly racial terms. Mulatto—meaning “little mule”—was a term applied to bastards. It had a connotation of species-mixing: a mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey. But it was not necessarily associated with race.
It was not until the 19th and early 20th centuries that discussion of Alessandro’s “race” came into its own—and then not in a good way. Scientific racism provided the intellectual backdrop against which historians of the Medici judged Alessandro’s rule. But Alessandro also attracted the attention of scholars seeking to challenge racism. In 1931, in the United States, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, co-founder of the Negro Society for Historical Research and creator of one of the most important collections of sources for African history, wrote an article about him for The Crisis, the magazine of the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Still, while the story may have been known in the USA, it was far from visible to me as a traveller to Florence, which I had visited three times before I heard it. When I did, I found it not in the city’s galleries, but in an academic book chapter in the University of London library. In the museums of Florence itself there was scanty evidence even for Alessandro’s existence. A few years ago, when I visited the Uffizi Gallery, his portrait was not on display. To prove to friends that he was real, I was reduced to apologetic leafing through old exhibition catalogues in the gallery bookshop. A friend who had spent a decade studying sociology at the University of Florence knew nothing of the tales of Alessandro’s ethnicity. Nor did my Florentine landlady, who had lived in the city for years. She smelt a conspiracy. In the past ten years or so, there has been greater acknowledgement—both in academic literature and in the art world—of the likelihood that Alessandro was mixed-race. Yet he is still very far from a well-known historical figure.
For a very long time, the city of Florence has been mythologized as the symbolic heart of European culture, the cradle of western civilization. It abounds with the images and stories of great men: Dante, Botticelli, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo, Galileo. The Renaissance was the first period—so the traditional history went—in which we could truly speak of the great individual, of the “Renaissance man.” Alessandro’s story reminds us that Renaissance men may not always have been white. Alongside the art and poetry, the scheming, intriguing, bloody side of Renaissance politics is well known too. As Orson Welles famously riffed, “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.” To terror, murder, and bloodshed, Alessandro’s story adds slavery and the seeds of racism.
Alessandro’s story is a challenge to the way we think of the Renaissance and Florence. His is an exceptional life, and that is why we know so much about it. It is not always a heroic life. Alessandro de’ Medici is not a fine example of princely virtue. He may well have been responsible for murder. But you could say much the same of many contemporaries in European politics. For centuries, Alessandro’s story has been distorted and overlooked. There is good reason to rediscover it. It would be no bad thing to hang his portrait a little more prominently on Florence’s gallery walls.
From THE BLACK PRINCE OF FLORENCE. Used with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Catherine Fletcher.