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The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher
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Alessandro de’ Medici, who ruled Florence from 1532 to 1537, lived a short life “packed with intrigue”, said Dan Jones in The Sunday Times. He was the bastard son of Lorenzo de’ Medici – dedicatee of Machiavelli’s The Prince – and most probably of a servant, or slave, of African descent: hence his nickname “il Moro” (“the Moor”). Yet neither Alessandro’s skin colour nor his illegitimacy proved an “obstruction to his advancement”. As duke of Florence, he governed “pitilessly”: his head of security was known as “the Butcher”, and he made so many enemies that he wore a “velvet doublet lined with fine chain mail”. Yet he also had a “popular touch”, playing “street football”, and “making light” of his “base birth”.

Catherine Fletcher is “entirely at ease” in the Renaissance world, and her biography of the duke is “generously” full of detail, said Jonathan Keates in the Literary Review. It is also a work of revisionism: her Alessandro is less the “dusky degenerate” of historical tradition than a “victim of his age”, who grew up surrounded by a “rogue’s gallery” of “psychotically violent” princes and cardinals. Indeed, the responsibility for his poor reputation lies largely with 19th century historians, who were keen to “explain” his defects in terms of his “skin colour”. In one respect, though, Fletcher does let Alessandro off “too lightly”, said Daisy Dunn in The Times. She claims there is little evidence to justify his reputation as a man of “disordered lusts”. Yet clearly his cousin, Lorenzino, was in “no doubt about his ravenous sexual appetites”. Lorenzino – whose motives remain unclear – enticed the young duke to his bedchamber, with the promise that another man’s beautiful wife would be waiting for him. Instead, Lorenzino and an assassin named Scoronconcolo stabbed him to death.