Reading last week that an Italian MP, Gianluca Buonanno of the Northern League, had ‘blacked up’ to deliver an anti-immigration speech in parliament brought me back to a question I periodically contemplate. Why does Italy ignore its ‘black’ history? 1
Of the western world, Italy must be the only country that can reasonably claim to have had two heads of state of African heritage. More than a millennium apart, Lucius Septimius Severus and Alessandro de’ Medici ruled, respectively, the Roman Empire and the city-state of Florence. Today, however, while Buonanno’s extreme anti-immigration views are not broadly representative, there’s still a great deal of racism in Italy (some reasons for which Tobias Jones discusses here). Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has become a hate-figure: a Northern League senator faced charges of racially-aggravated defamation after comparing her to an orang-utan.
For some background on Septimius Severus, the ‘African-Roman Emperor’ I recommend this piece by Mary Beard, written shortly after the election of Barack Obama. The heated debate in the comments shows what a controversial issue ‘race’ in history remains. Historians of early modern Italy, including myself, increasingly incline to the view that Alessandro de’ Medici, ruler of Florence from 1531 to 1537, was the son of an African slave or ex-slave. Short of DNA testing we can’t be sure, of course, but in my view the complex of visual and textual evidence clearly points to that conclusion. (For more on this see my blog.)
As for the public discussion of this history, I’ll defer to classicists for Septimius Severus, but for Alessandro the record ranges from appalling to improving. In a book on Alessandro’s mother, published in 1995, an Italian author felt able to claim that descriptions of Alessandro’s mother as a Moorish slave were anti-Medici fantasies aimed at smearing Alessandro. He made no attempt to reconcile this with the images of Alessandro in his book, painted during the duke’s lifetime, that are key evidence in the case for Alessandro as a man of African heritage. 2
There is, however, some better news, though ironically from outside Italy. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London now has a portrait of Alessandro on display in its Medieval & Renaissance galleries, reworked in the past five years or so, and the caption etc. for that fully acknowledges question of ethnicity. Last year the Walters Museum in Baltimore hosted an exhibition entitled ‘Face to Face: the African Presence in Renaissance Europe’ that included portraits of Alessandro and his daughter.
The point, however, is that it took a struggle for this history to be acknowledged. Back in the early 2000s, controversy flared over the presentation of Alessandro’s portraits in US galleries. Pontormo’s portraits of Alessandro de’ Medici and the duke’s daughter Giulia with Maria Salviati appeared in American exhibitions between 2001 and 2005 at the National Gallery, Washington, the Art Institute Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum. Successive curators failed to note – or indeed dismissed – the growing scholarly consensus that Alessandro and his daughter were of African descent. They found themselves subject to significant public criticism. A PBS documentary and a Washington Post article followed. Attitudes began to change.
If American galleries have shifted view, their Italian counterparts have not. In Florence itself there is scanty evidence for Alessandro’s existence. The last time I visited the Uffizi Gallery, his portrait was not on display. To prove to my friends that he was real, I was reduced to leafing through old catalogues in the gallery bookshop, explaining apologetically that Italian galleries don’t really do black history. A friend who had spent a decade studying sociology at the University of Florence knew nothing of Alessandro. Nor did my Florentine landlady, who had lived in the city for years. She smelt a conspiracy: the unspecified ‘they’ of the Italian establishment denying citizens their true past.
Personally, I think change will take time. Italy hasn’t had the long experience of campaigning for black history and debate about its past that has wrought some (not enough) change in Britain and the USA. But for the moment I’d just like to point out to Gianluca Buonanno that his country’s heritage isn’t as ‘white’ as he implies.
Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History. You can follow her research and public engagement work relating to Alessandro de’ Medici at the ‘Project Alex’ blog, which has further links to background reading and information.
- I agree it’s problematic to use the term ‘black’ for these periods of history. But in the twenty-first century, the issues of race that arise in these premodern periods have to be communicated through concepts that were not around at the time but that evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. So we might refer to Alessandro de’ Medici as ‘black’ or ‘mixed race’ even though those were not the terms of the time. In fact, in the sixteenth-century there seems to have been relatively little interest in his ethnicity. Critics pointed to his mother’s low status – as a slave or peasant – but as far as we can tell the colour of his skin did not prompt much discussion. ↩
- Francesco Benedetti, La Madre del Moro (Pescara, 1995). ↩