The history and accounts of the Renaissance is remembered by the public as a purely European phenomenon that was centered on a largely homogeneous ethnicity. At the same time, it reduced the presence of people of African descents to the role of servants or slaves. Neither of these two theories was true, for they both were weaved purely based on historical stereotypes. From the mid-fifteenth century onwards, people of African descent began to be an integral part of the European society, which helped reshape the classical culture of Europe. This powerful reshaping and development of the European culture are evident through many historical examples, one of which is, Alessandro De Medici, Duke of Florence.
Alessandro de’ Medici was the first of the Medici to rule Florence as a hereditary monarch. In 1510, the city of Florence witnessed the birth of Alessandro to Lorenzo II de’ Medici. Most of his contemporaries recognize him as the only son to Lorenzo II, however, a few believe him to be the illegitimate son of Giulio de’ Medici who later came to be known as Pope Clement VII, nephew of Lorenzo I (Lorenzo the Magnificent).
In 1530, Clement VII chose young Alessandro over Ippolito to be entrusted with Florence. Ippolito was assigned as a cardinal (a senior leader and an ordained bishop of the Catholic Church). At the time, Alessandro was already appointed as the Duke of Penne by Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. On the 5th of July 1531, Alessandro arrived in Florence to assume his new position, and about 9 months later, Charles V made him officially the hereditary Duke of Florence by the new Florentine constitution in April 1532. That was the end of the Republic and the beginning of a new era. Alessandro was able to win the affection of his subjects through his common sense and his strong feeling for justice.
The Medici family became extremely wealthy, not only due to their social status, but it is because they were successful business owners. They were leaders of the Florence merchants particularly the wool merchants. Moreover, the establishment of the Medici bank by Giovanni de Medici provided the name of the family with more prominence and grandeur along with the profit that the business reeled in. Later on, Giovanni’s son was the first to become a political leader. This success allowed the Medici family to rule Florence for about two centuries.
Besides being economically powerful, which allowed the Medici to rise in ranks, they were also famous for their patronage of the arts. It means that they used to sponsor artists and pay them commissions for major works of art. This had an enormous impact on shaping the culture of the Renaissance, for it allowed the artists to focus on unleashing their creativity without having to worry about financial issues. They supported famous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello. They also supported the rebuilding of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Hence, a considerable amount of the art and architecture that were produced in Florence during the beginning of the Renaissance was owed to the Medici family.
The Medici coat of arms
The Basilica of San Lorenzo
As Duke of Florence, Alessandro ordered the removal of the council bell from the Palazzo della Signoria. Among the small-scale commissions that were made during his reign, there were the elaborately designed medals that glorified Alessandro as a peace-maker. The most prominent ones were created in 1534 by Domenico di Polo and in 1535 by Francesco dal Prato. Also in 1534, Giorgio Vasari painted a portrait of Alessandro depicting him as the defender and protector of Florence and a prominently growing branch of the Medici family tree. Artists such as Jacopo da Pontormo and Giulio Romano also painted other portraits of him.
The most significant commission that was made during his reign though was the Fortezza da Basso (also known as the Fortress of Saint John the Baptist), a highly technical and architecturally important citadel that was built and designed against the city between 1534 and 1537 by Antonio de Sangallo. The citadel is currently the largest historical monument in Florence.
The Medici didn’t restrict their support to the arts and architecture, but they also supported scientists in their efforts in the different fields of science. They supported the famous Galileo Galilei, who also tutored the children of the Medici family. All those major contributions of the Medici family gave rise to their acquired title, “the Godfathers of the Renaissance”. Alessandro happened to be ruling Florence during the period of the birth of the Italian Renaissance, and he played a crucial part in establishing the power of the Medici family in Italy.
The 14th century Florence was the origin and center from which the Renaissance was born and then it began to spread across Europe and eventually the rest of the world during a period of three centuries. This cultural, political, intellectual, and scientific explosion of ideas changed the world by paving the way for further advancements. The fluidity of the Renaissance’s ideas allowed it to change and evolve in order to match the local cultural conditions and thinking in whichever country it reached while at the same time maintaining its ideals. From circumnavigating the world, to understanding our planet’s position in the cosmos, from the beauty of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the brilliance of Shakespeare, the seeds of the modern world’s advancement in science, mathematics, literature and art were sown and grown during the Renaissance.
Today, Florence is often described as an enchanting and romantic city in Italy. However, at the time of Alessandro De Medici, Florence was more than just an enchanting city, it was a powerful entity across the entire country. Florence served as an influential capital for a long while, but as it is the case in many other political entities in history, the capital was eventually re-located. Not only once, but Italy over time had no less than six capitals: Milan from 286 to 402, Pavia from the 10th to 13th century, Turin from 1861 to 1865.
Alessandro De Medici was living proof that Africans and people of African descent were a major ingredient in the so-called homogenous ethnicity that made up the European culture and civilization. Africans were not bystanders waiting for the arrival of the different forms of civilization that are represented in art, architecture, literature, and science; on the contrary, they themselves were contributors in the advancement of such fields. Alessandro also shows that Africans didn’t make such contribution from behind the shadows, but rather they did so from prominent positions, such as his, as the Duke of Florence.
- Rogers, J.A., World’s Great Men of Color, Volume 2, page 31 (Touchstone, 1996) ISBN 0684815826
- Catherine Fletcher, The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici (London: Bodley Head, 2016)
- “Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art: Duke Alessandro de’ Medici”. Victoria and Albert Museum. Archived from the original on 5 January 2019. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
- Halvorson, Michael (2014-08-29). The Renaissance: All That Matters. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 9781444192964.