The Mildly Interesting Prince of Florence
So, the story goes, many years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan was at a cocktail party when talk turned to one of the bestsellers of the day. As he joined the swirling conversation, someone asked him if he’d read the novel they were discussing. “Not personally,” he replied with a grin, as he liberated another drink from the tray of a passing waiter.
There’s a nice distinction hidden beneath the humor of Moynihan’s quip. Some books you need to read. Other books you only need to read about. No quantity of secondary sources will give you the true inwardness of reading the Symposium or Ulysses or The Wasteland. But plenty of books present single arguments or small historical anecdotes, told in a fairly undistinguished prose. Plenty of books—especially in these days of the near disappearance of the long-form magazine article—are merely essays bloated up to book size, making a narrow point or telling a slender story. Oh, you may still need to read them. Just not personally.
The Black Prince of Florence is such a book, unfortunately. The latest from the historian Catherine Fletcher, The Black Prince of Florence tells the life and times of Alessandro de’ Medici, who ruled Florence from 1532 to 1537. Back in 2012, Fletcher published The Divorce of Henry VIII, an unconventional account of English Reformation politics as seen through the eyes of Rome. Her research in Italian archives allowed her to explore the Vatican’s battles as it struggled with foreign agents, internal politics, and communication delays in the effort to prevent Henry’s apostasy and the establishment of an independent Church of England.
Now, in The Black Prince of Florence, she shifts her attention to a more local topic in Renaissance Italy, with a book that possesses many of the same virtues as her earlier work. Fletcher’s research is impeccable—as, for example, when she found, off in unlikely Mantua, a set of letts filled with gossip from a secretary of one of Alessandro’s ministers. Her knowledge of the sixteenth century is good, and her attention to detail proves excellent. Even her narrative sense seems, if not inspired, nonetheless solid. The Black Prince of Florence is not a bad book. In truth, Catherine Fletcher has written a good book, if you’re one of the readers who enjoys well-researched popular history.
The problem is only that that The Black Prince of Florence is an unnecessary book. A well-written essay would have done in 20,000 words the work that Fletcher takes 150,000 words to accomplish. After all, her tale has a narrow focus: a Medici by-blow who ruled an Italian city-state for six years, from age 19 to 25, before his assassination. And the point she wants to draw from it all—that bastardry mattered more than race, to Renaissance Europeans—proves even more narrow.
Not that it isn’t an interesting story. Machiavelli intended The Prince, his dark manual of statecraft, for Lorenzo de’ Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent and ruler of Florence. Unfortunately, Lorenzo died from syphilis at age 26, leaving two children to play the brutal game of Italian politics. The first was his famous daughter Catherine de’ Medici, who married Henry II of France and became as Machiavellian a figure as the world has ever known. And the second was an illegitimate son named Alessandro—born in 1511 to a mother, Simunetta, who was possibly a Medici servant, possibly a Sicilian, and possibly partly African.
The early death of his father in 1519, without a legitimate son, suddenly gave the young Alessandro a more prominent place among Italian nobility. At the time, his cousin Ippolito, a legitimate Medici, was considered the family’s great hope for the next generation, but Alessandro was not forgotten. He began to be groomed for power, and that power would come, much to his cousin’s fury.
In 1527, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome—and in all the confusion, Florence expelled the Medici and re-established the Republic. Within a few years, however, Charles and Pope Clement VII (another senior Medici) had set aside their differences. Worried about the family’s continuing power in both the Church and the secular realm, Clement appointed his 18-year-old protégé Ippolito a cardinal and had Charles make the 19-year-old Alessandro a duke, the new ruler of Florence.
Seeking stronger ties in Italy, Charles even married off his own illegitimate child, Margaret of Austria, to the illegitimate Medici he and the pope had established in Florence. It was a glorious wedding, by all Renaissance accounts, but the young Alessandro was not a chaste man, and his opponents never let him have peace. Cardinal Ippolito was a constant enemy (before his own death, possibly from a papal poison, in 1535), the exiled Florentine republicans hated him, and the other Italian states thought his Tuscan holdings were too large for a political neophyte and bastard child. All of them gossiped about him, slanged him, and spread rumors about his despotism, mismanagement, and cruelty—rumors that outlived him and left Alessandro de’ Medici remembered (on the rare occasions when he was remembered) as a brute and a tyrant.
In 1537, yet another cousin, Lorenzino de’ Medici, tricked him into sneaking out for an adulterous evening with the wife of a Florentine nobleman. Together with a hired assassin named Scoronconcolo, Lorenzino trapped Alessandro and stabbed him to death—for reasons that have never come clear. It may have been family jealousy. Or it may have been politics, since Florence’s exiles claimed Lorenzino as a hero of the lost republic. But regardless of the reason, six years into his rule and only 25, Alessandro was gone, nearly lost to history.
Catherine Fletcher’s Black Prince of Florence won’t revive him. His brief life is interesting, as a case study in the ferocious intrigue of Renaissance politics, but Alessandro simply did not do enough in Italian politics to command historical attention as more than an illustrative footnote to his age. Fletcher is thus compelled to gin up another reason for interest in the man—and, unsurprisingly for the fixations of our age in historical writing, she chooses race.
A handful of writers about the Renaissance have mentioned Alessandro de’ Medici in their general or specialized histories of the sixteenth century. Lacking much incentive to do deep research about the lost duke, they seem mostly to have accepted the negative reputation with which his opponents’ rumormongering had left him. Moreover, Fletcher notes, 19th and early 20th century historians occasionally used claims of racial inferiority as explanations for his supposed personal immorality and political despotism.
Fletcher’s notion is not a bad one. The obsession with race is much more typical of the modern age than of earlier times. The possible partial African descent of “Alessandro il Moro” was not seen as a bar to his rule by the Medici family, the Holy Roman Emperor, or, really, by anyone in that Renaissance world. It was the fact of his bastardry, instead, that most often stood in his way, and his cousin Ippolito, who wanted Florence instead of a cardinal’s see, never let him forget it.
Knowing that, however, you know the point of The Black Prince of Florence. Glance over a few reviews of the books to get the bones of Alessandro’s story and the gist of Catherine Fletcher’s conclusion, and you really will have read the book. Just not personally.