Who Was the Black Prince of Florence? | History Hit

Who Was the Black Prince of Florence?

A portrait of Alessandro de' Medici by Jacopo Pontormo (1534/5)
Image Credit: Public Domain

Our podcast series Not Just The Tudors shines a light on a fascinating chapter in the history in Renaissance Florence. The astonishing story of Alessandro de’Medici is a tale of assassination, spies and betrayal. But just who was the mixed-race man who rose to become the first Duke of the Florentine Republic?

The Medici family

The Medici were one of the most important families in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Gaining their power and influence through banking, which in itself was funded through their role in the wool trade, they became one of the most important powers in Florence, dominating the city’s governance. By the early 17th century, the Medici had produced 4 popes, 2 queens of France and ruled the newly formed Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of rivalries and power plays within the family: not everyone could have exactly what they wanted.

A series of the most illustrious members of the Medici Family from the workshop of Bronzino.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Ippolito and Alessandro

In the early 16th century, it became clear that Lorenzo II de Medici would die without a legitimate male heir. The only options for the family now were two illegitimate boys – Alessandro, who was probably Lorenzo’s son, and Ippolito, son of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici.

In 1523, Ippolito’s uncle became Pope Clement VII, and in order to further the interests of the family (as well as for political benefit), he made Ippolito a cardinal. This, in turn, excluded him from the potential line of succession. The only option left to succeed as a Medici ruler of Florence was Alessandro.

What was the issue?

Illegitimacy might have raised a few eyebrows, but it was widely accepted and hardly a barrier to a successful political career or dynastic marriage in the 16th century. More of a problem for Alessandro was that his mother was rumoured to be a servant or a slave in the Medici household, meaning he was of low birth.

To further complicate things, she was also said to be of African descent: Alessandro was nicknamed ‘il Moro’ (the Moor) on account of his swarthy complexion. Whilst racism as we know it did not exist in Renaissance Italy, Alessandro’s obvious ‘otherness’, low birth and illegitimacy were a potent combination for the evoking of disapproval amongst his contemporaries and peers. Despite these issues, they were not big enough to prevent him from being installed as ruler of Florence in 1531, and Duke in 1532.

Bad blood

Ippolito, Alessandro’s cousin, was distinctly unhappy about missing out on the top job. He tried to instigate a coup, before repeatedly and openly talking about assassinating his cousin. Ippolito died in 1535 under mysterious circumstances: some say he contracted malaria, others claim he was poisoned by Alessandro to prevent him going to the Pope and denouncing his rule.

But that was far from the end of Alessandro’s difficulties. The ‘Black Prince of Florence’, as he became known, had a reign marked by intrigue, betrayal, and eventually his own assassination.

Want to learn more about this dramatic chapter of history in Renaissance Florence? Have a listen to Catherine Fletcher on this episode of Not Just the Tudors here:

How did the illegitimate son of a Medici Duke rise to power, only to be murdered by his cousin?
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Sarah Roller