The Medici, rulers of Renaissance Florence, are not the most obvious example of a multiracial family. They’ve always been part of the historical canon of “western civilization,” the world of dead white men. Perhaps we should think again. A tradition dating back to the sixteenth century suggests that Alessandro de’ Medici, an illegitimate child of the Florentine banking family who in 1532 became duke of Florence, was the son of an Afro-European woman. Sometimes called Simunetta, she may have been a slave in the household of his grandmother Alfonsina Orsini de’ Medici. The historical sources are elusive, but by pursuing them we can learn much about the history of race.
It’s easy to get the impression that mixed-race families are a new phenomenon. Pew Research Center reported last year that 6.9% of US adults are multiracial, and that the numbers are growing. In Britain the numbers are also growing, though smaller overall (2%) and one in 10 UK couples is of mixed ethnicity.*
Historical and archaeological research, however, shows that mixed-race families have been around very much longer. For example, there was a significant presence of first-generation migrants from North Africa in Roman Britain. Medieval records explored by the England’s Immigrants 1350-1550 project are largely “colour-blind,” but there is other evidence for both black Africans and North African “Moors” in medieval England. It would be surprising indeed if none of these people had had children. Elsewhere in Europe, African migration—both voluntary and forced—was significant too. The retinue of Emperor Frederick II, thirteenth-century ruler of Germany and Sicily, included black Africans. Ethiopian Christians travelled to Europe: some became monks at Santo Stefano in Rome. From the fourteenth century, St Maurice was often depicted as black in German art.
In the fifteenth century, the beginning of the Portuguese trade in enslaved Africans gave a new and traumatic dynamic to this world. Slavery was already a part of the social fabric in Mediterranean societies, but in early fifteenth century Italy, many slaves came not from Africa, but from the East. Cosimo “the Elder” de’ Medici (1389-1464), had an enslaved Circassian mistress named Maddalena. Their son, Carlo, was born around 1428. Brought up with Cosimo’s legitimate heirs, he had a career in the Church and helped pave the way for later Medici sons to become cardinals.
In the frescos painted in the middle of the fifteenth century for the chapel in Palazzo Medici, a black African archer is shown prominently alongside a procession of Florentine dignitaries. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Africans were a much larger proportion of the enslaved population in Italy, particularly in Naples, hometown of Alessandro de’ Medici’s grandmother Alfonsina.
There is still a battle, though, to bring this European history to the public. It took an American museum, the Walters, to put together the first major exhibition on the African Presence in Renaissance Europe. Race is almost absent as an issue from the museums of Florence (and indeed Italy), whether the period is the Roman Empire, the Renaissance or the twentieth-century imperialism of Mussolini.
A part of the difficulty here is the way the Renaissance is packaged and sold. This is a glamorous world of art and luxury—and, yes, of violence, but of the dramatic Borgia-style vendetta not the institutionalised systems of oppression. You might say the same of British country houses, where the Downton Abbey image leaves little space for their connection to the profits of slavery or Empire. There has been some positive work on this front recently, for example at Kenwood House, which in the eighteenth century was home to a biracial woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle (subject of a recent film by Amma Asante, which deserves wider public attention). Such developments are largely thanks to the efforts of community activists and the provision of public funding to engage a wider range of audiences. There is a long way to go, particularly in the privately-owned heritage sector.
But everyone wants a history, and perhaps one consequence of the growing number of mixed-race families in the twenty-first century will be a growing interest in such families in the past. This is far from an easy issue. All too often these family histories are entangled with enslavement and Empire, with violence and with deep inequalities of power. In my own family tree I find twelfth-century Jewish migrants to England on one side, and twentieth-century British missionaries in India on another. I always knew they were there, but writing The Black Prince of Florence has made me think anew about questions of race and ethnicity in my own past, as well as in the lives of others.
* The UK research differentiates between certain white ethnicities.
Featured image credit: “Medici Chapel roof” by virtusincertus. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.