The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

Review published on May 13, 2017.

The Black Prince of Florence is a creditable and enjoyable history of one of the lesser known Medici. An account of Alessandro’s court and his time as ruler of the city state. A period that has not been well covered in the past. So Fletcher is bringing the reign of Alessandro to life. This biography is part detailed study of the life of an early sixteenth century Renaissance court and part adventure story – the history of the Medici generally make the historical thriller redundant. The fulcrum of the book are Duke Alessandro’s court, the city political structure and diplomatic relations with other Italian states, the Papacy and king Charles V. It is a story of nepotism, intrigue, murder, lust, spying, double crossing and political and religious power grabbing.

Fletcher has written a popular history that pieces together the evidence, often sparse, unreliable and contradictory, from official sources (such as court records, diplomatic communications, clerk accounts) and less conventional sources (such as the keeper of the wardrobe’s accounts, the laundry lists). Fletcher is scholarly where possible (sometimes the gaps in knowledge cannot be filled). The book is well researched; Fletcher has a good eye for detail and discerning credible witness testimony from contemporary accounts. Many of Alessandro’s papers were said to be lost following his death, so it is sometimes impossible to be definitive about dates and facts. The bias in primary sources on Alessandro make a comprehensive study very difficult. Fletcher never stretches an argument and is creative in sourcing corroboration but there are holes that cannot be plugged.

Still, The Black Prince of Florence puts Alessandro’s reign back in focus, it is the most detailed account of his life to date. The achievement of the work is to have re-evaluated the reputation of the man and re-examined his role in the history of Florence to give him back a balanced position in the history of the Medici. It is further to Fletcher’s credit that this account is lively and entertaining and accessible to the casual reader, as much as the student of the period.

Fletcher begins with the brutal death of Alessandro de Medici on the eve of the Epiphany, 1537. The Duke of Florence is tempted to the chamber of his cousin, Lorenzo, on the promise of an assignation with Caterina de Ginori, a virtuous married woman. Lorenzo is no stranger to pimping for his cousin. While the Duke sleeps before the lady is due to arrive, Lorenzo and his man, Scoronconcolo, steal into the chamber and murder him.

Fletcher says that Lorenzo then provides an “eloquent justification” for the deed. She states that: “It was the misfortune of Alessandro de Medici to be assassinated twice: first with the sword then with a pen.”

Fletcher contends that Alessandro’s lost papers and partisan contemporary accounts present a very bad light on his reign. That Duke Alessandro de Medici has gone down in history as a tyrant. This study examines the view that Alessandro was merely a brutal prince. Fletcher contends that Alessandro was effectively made the scapegoat for the brutal years of the Medici rule of Florence. He was castigated by early historians and has since been overlooked or demonised, (the historiography show, for example, that the nineteenth century historians with a republican cause to support, happily accepted the given version of Alessandro’s rule). Alessandro has been reduced to a footnote in the Medici family story, while the infamy and influence of other family members; Cesare, Lucretia, Catherine, Giovanni, Lorenzo the magnificent, are synonymous with the Renaissance.

Alessandro was born in 1511/12, son to a slave or servant (his mother probably of African origin sparking a debate on his ethnicity that Fletcher adeptly deals with). It is likely he was brought up in the Medici household as companion to his cousin, Ippolito. The Medici grip on Florence was weakened during his early life, when the ruling Duke, Lorenzo and his wife, Madeleine, both died in short order in 1519, not long after the birth of their daughter, Catherine. In its recent past the city state had strong republican tendencies, had been through the upheaval of the bonfire of the vanities and Savonarola and the French invasion had forced the Medici from the city. Now the city repudiated the rule of the Medici again in 1527. When Charles V finally took the city in 1530/31 it would once again be controlled by the Medici. Ippolito made no secret of wanting to rule the city but his duties as Cardinal, Charles V and Pope Clement VII thwarted that ambition. By this time Alessandro had risen in prominence in the entourage of Charles V and was made Duke of Florence in 1531. Ippolito had to be deterred from trying to take the city by force and never again had good relations with his cousin, constantly seeking to wrestle Florence from him. Pope Clement was said to have: “….Confirmed that it was his will that Alessandro should live in Florence, be the head of the family and govern the Signoria as his predecessors did.”

Alessandro was welcomed by the city, but Fletcher believes that this is where a dual narrative on Alessandro begins in earnest, questioning the size of the crowd greeting his presence at the city council and the warmth of reception he received.

Now Alessandro had a palace, courtiers, artists and land and was looking for a wife. Alessandro loved the countryside and to hunt, but he was shrewd about his personal security. Over the coming years, he fortified towns and border posts and militarised defences. Clement VII had wanted Alessandro to be “first citizen” but with the backing of Charles V he became more powerful. The ruling Signoria numbers were reduced and powers were ceded to the Duke. Margaret of Austria as chosen as wife but they would not marry until 1536. Alessandro fell out with several of the influential families of the city, the Strozzi among them. In December of 1533 he had two men sentenced to hang for threatening his life, starting his brutal reputation. Lorenzo, unpopular in Rome, becomes Alessandro’s companion. In 1535, Ippolito approached Charles but gets little support against Alessandro and shortly afterwards Ippolito is poisoned. The opposition to Alessandro in the city looked to Charles to “constitutionalise” Alessandro’s reign to no avail. Despite assassination attempts and some unrest Fletcher contends that Alessandro has created a stable state, reformed laws and better off citizens. Why Lorenzo chose to murder Alessandro in early 1537 is not clear. Before the dust settled, Cosimo de Medici moved to take over the city state.

Fletcher avoids annotating the text, but the notes and bibliography are comprehensive. The photo-plates show that there are very few images of Alessandro. Fletcher admits struggling to find one herself on a visit to Florence when trying to tell a friend about Alessandro.

Overall, this is an entertaining read and I learned about a period of the Medici that was not so familiar to me. However, two issues prevent this history becoming definitive. First, it is ultimately the lack of evidence that prevents a complete picture of Alessandro and his reign emerging. Fletcher does as well as anyone can with the material but the gaps are evident. Secondly, Fletcher is convincing on the point that Alessandro was not a tyrant, or at least was no worse than other rulers of the time, and he did achieve a stable state, judged against the standards of the time. He should rightly have his place in the history of the Medici. However, Alessandro is not exceptional and much of what was achieved was part of an on going process not the result of any radical policy of his own. He did assume power as a prince rather than as a first citizen, but with no great flair for leadership. So Fletcher may have rescued Alessandro from obscurity or even contemporary bias, but he will always be a footnote in Medici history.

Fletcher is Associate Professor in History and Heritage at Swansea University, her area of expertise is the Renaissance and early modern Europe. Her first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII, was an evocative study of the Tudor and Papal courts.

Paul Burke 3/4

The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher
Vintage 9780099586944 pbk Apr 2017

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