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). ↩
Hi Catherine, very interesting piece, thanks a lot!
I would like to point out, though, that the fact that Italy has a minister for integration who is herself a black immigrant speaks for something as well – someone must have elected her and re-elected her, as she’s also risen through the provincial political ranks in Emilia Romagna! She herself says as much:
There are other European countries where such a political career would not happen so easily. It shows, I think, that national attitudes can’t be generalised (as the Guardian article you refer to does, I find). Some Italians, and many I have met while living in Italy (and also visiting football stadiums), are extremely civilised and open-minded. That obviously doesn’t diminish the outrageousness of racist abuse happening in Italy and you would wish for more outspoken campaigning against this from all political quarters.
I do wonder though whether Italians would embrace Alessandro as a national figure anyway, given that he ruled, as you say, ‘only’ the city-state of Florence. I am not aware that the Medici in general are seen as representing a national Italian past in this historically very fragmented country. Perhaps the attitudes towards Alessandro and the neglect that you describe above all tell us something about Florence.
Thanks! On Cecile Kyenge, yes, of course, her example shows that it’s possible for black Italians to have successful political careers. I hope my article didn’t come across as implying all Italians are racists! That’s certainly not what I intended. Clearly the Democratic Party, in Kyenge’s case, made a conscious choice to promote her rapidly and I agree that’s a positive development. However I also wonder whether outside the Democratic Party heartlands of Emilia Romagna (the region she represents) things would have gone the same way. I guess that ties into your comment about the difficulty of generalising national attitudes.
As for Alessandro, I take your point, but then if one’s political aim is to create a more inclusive narrative of Italian history why not discuss him? For sure there are other individuals of African heritage you might discuss from all over Italy but the quantity of historical testimony that survives for Alessandro is unusual. I think part of the reason why he’s neglected has to do with the specifics of Florentine history. Alessandro’s rule is associated with the fall of the last republican government and therefore perceived negatively for reasons quite other than his ‘race’.
thanks for your reply! The national stereotyping remark was aimed at the Guardian article linked to in your blog which I thought was very one-dimensional (hence my reference to football stadiums!). Not your fault at all, of course!
Your project is so fascinating, but I can also see that you are facing an up-hill struggle, some of which must be down to the difficulty of, as you say, being sure of Alessandro’s ethnicity. Of course, in terms of integrity of historical method, this needs to be mentioned, but I can also see how it can prop up an approach of denial: if Alessandro wasn’t black, then there is no case of black history, and we can stop talking about it. As if black people should only be talked about when they are duke of Florence! I hope your project will be able to raise awareness that, as you mentioned, there were many people of African descent in the Italian peninsula at the time (and before and after). Looking forward to learning more about it!
Very simply..im Italy there’s no black history month or whatever the PC term is,because there’s no black heritage. Kyenge is a mistake and the fruit of a failed government that sold out Italy over and over again as the latest immigration laws prove.
Thanks for your comment. I’d disagree. In the three years I lived in Italy I came across numerous examples of black history and I’ll mention just a couple that might be familiar to international readers. In the Palazzo Medici in Florence the Gozzoli Chapel frescoes feature a black man in the Medici entourage (click on the first image in the sequence here http://www.palazzo-medici.it/ita/sez_museo/viaggio.htm). In the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua there’s also an image of a black figure (in the ceiling, here http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Camera_picta,_ceiling_3.jpg). These are just two examples from well-known tourist sites but I think they illustrate that there’s more black heritage than you might think. It’s estimated that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries some port cities may have a population that was 5% black. Most of these people were slaves, trafficked into Italy from west Africa by Portuguese traders. We don’t often think of Renaissance Italy as a slave-owning society but it was.
Readers who want to find out more about this history might start with the excellent volume edited by Kate Lowe and T. F. Earle, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, published by Cambridge University Press and with a detailed review here: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/619.
Emilio could also take a trip to San Fratello in Sicily where people celebrated every year Saint Benedict the Moor,a black saint, but fortunately the web helps us:
Although he was born in Libya, Septimius Severus was of partial Carthaginian descent, which would make him most likely of middle eastern appearance rather than African.
However, the Roman emperor Marcus Opellius Macrinus was born in Mauretania and was described as a Moor by his contemporaries such as Cassius Dio. Which would raise the strong possibility that at least one emperor had a black complexion.
Granted you mention it in your first footnote, but I’ve always wondered how much early modern people drew sharp distinctions about “race” (at least in its modern sense)? Of course a discourse was present and included blanket terms such as “savage”, “moor” or “turk” to describe the “other”. But when we consider the masses of literature that explored religious (prots/caths), gender, cultural (civil/uncivil), social (pray/work/fight) etc. distinctions, is it not conceivable that in the C16th “race” was not the issue that we are all so often at pains to emphasise nowadays?
Variables that seem frivolous to us today – astrological portents, humoural temperaments, table manners – indisputably spilt more ink, and impacted more on peoples’ lives than any discussion on race.
I realise that your blog postulates whether modern Italians have chosen whether to shy away from their possible multi-race heritage or not. And I see it conceivable that this condition could have been just as much the result of C19th or C20th politics and historical emphases than our current opinions towards race.
Yet is there not a risk here of us using the existence of race or “black people” in the past as a token to satisfy our own neo-liberal appetites?
This blog I know is about showing how the past is relevant today and what we choose to study says as much about today then the past. In that way perhaps I am missing something here. However, could we not equally learn something from the fact that Alessandro was a ruler of Florence and that his race (presumably) did not factor in to it? I would find the results of your research incredibly refreshing if it sheds light on the early modern period as one where ideas of race were deemed more frivolous than calculating one’s temperament when mercury is the in the sign of capricorn!
Thanks for your comment. I didn’t go into detail about this in my article because it’s rather tangential to the main point, but I entirely agree that ‘race’ in its modern forms was not understood in the same way in the sixteenth century. Other issues – social status and religion in particular – were more important. I think it’s precisely because of this that it was possible for Alessandro de’ Medici to become ruler of Florence in a way that it wouldn’t have been two or three centuries later.
I take your point about the risk of writing ‘black’ identities back into the past in a way that’s ahistorical. But on the other hand not to discuss ‘race’ before ‘race’ (so to speak) risks leaving people with the mistaken assumption that premodern Europe was an all-white society. Peter Erickson, writing in 1993, made a good point about this. He asked: ‘Can the category of “race” […] be legitimately applied to the Renaissance? If not, what are the consequences of ruling out this term as anachronistic?’ Erickson concluded, ‘we must now allow the spectre of historicity so to frighten us that the very topic of race in the Renaissance becomes unthinkable and inquiry thereby prematurely closed off’. I’m inclined to agree.
This is an interesting blog comment. While we still have a long way to go in Britain to acknowledge the hundreds of years of black contribution, it does seem that European countries have been lagging behind, but that there have been qualitative shifts for the better in the last 3/4 years. I will bring this blog to the attention of the black history networks I am linked into.
Sean – History Department graduate 1969
Co-ordinator Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network
Biographer John Archer
Thanks for the comment, Sean. I’m very happy to host comments and articles on this theme over on my ‘Project Alex’ blog at http://www.projectalexblog.wordpress.com. If anyone out there would like to contribute a post please get in touch.
Hi Catherine. I think is worth to point out that black/white division was unknown to ancient people, they simply (and reasonably) observed that people from north (Celts, Germans) were gradually lighter than them, and people from south were gradually darker (Phoenicians, Aegyptians, Nubians, Aethiopians…). And as ethnocentric as they were they most likely assumed to be in the virtuous middle (more than one Greek philosopher wrote the same).
Anyway, even with today’s language is quite strange to consider Settimio Severo as black, since he was half roman and half phoenician.
But even if he was fully north african (as St. Agostinus) that would not make him black but Berber (like Zinedine Zidane, to have a clear picture).
I have seen that a lot of guy in the US of A now confuse African and black, and assume that everyone from Africa must have been “black”, but this is false. Berbers are the indigenous people of north Africa, and are not “black”. Nor were the Aegyptians, and even less the Phoenicians.
About Ludovico il Moro, I don’t understand on which basis you question that his mother was Bianca Maria Visconti. Usually is the father to be uncertain 😀
Jokes apart, we have an official father and an official mother for Ludovico, so the theory is quite stretched, even considering that in Italia “moro” just mean with black hair, and was subsequently used to indicate populations where this characteristic was predominant (someone would say, Italians as well, but is a matter of point of view I guess: while in Italy I was called “biondo”, here in England they consider me brown haired 😀 ).
Thanks for the comment. On Septimius Severus, and more generally in terms of my use of ‘black’, since I wrote this article I’ve realised that this is a word that often gets ‘lost in translation’. In the British political context there’s a tradition of using ‘black’ very broadly to encompass a range of people of colour (see Aditya Chakrabortty’s article on being Bengali and black for a discussion of this: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/30/bengali-black-ethnic-minorities-racism). However, I appreciate that that usage isn’t so common these days and probably needs more explanation than I gave it in the article. On Ludovico il Moro, I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I didn’t mention him in the article: I was discussing Alessandro de’ Medici, who’s explicitly referred to in a sixteenth-century source as the son of ‘a half-Negro woman’ or ‘a Moorish slave’. I don’t think anyone suggests there’s a debate about Ludovico’s ethnicity: there certainly is about Alessandro’s.
I’m of Italian heritage and have heard this notion from blacks a lot growing up. In fact a lot of blacks, if not most think I am of black ancestry, most likely due to my feautures – big lips, nose, body type? – over my somewhat olive complexion. I’ve read into the subject a lot and have always found that only Moors/Berbers have had significance in certain parts of Italy and that they were Caucasian.
Hi, I’d love to attend your next event. How can I find details? I’m an African-American and Italian Dual Citizen living in London and am doing some private research on the history of blacks in Italy. This is great!
Hi Ayana, thanks for your comment. My book on Alessandro de’ Medici is out on 21 April (it’s called the Black Prince of Florence) and I’ll be talking about it at the Oxford Literary Festival probably on 8 April. Keep an eye out on my Events page at http://www.catherinefletcher.info for more details and other talks.
I have heard about this book a lot and find the subject matter fascinating. I was wondering do you know when the book is scheduled for paperback release
As a long-standing italian history buff I’m completely against a certain point of view that this article seems to adhere to. Trying to insert arbitrarily a “black history part” in italian history just because one or two minor characters were (perhaps) blacks seems to me just arbitrary, unnecessary and aimed to political agenda reasons, instead of historical reasons, It’s like trying to insert a white history chapter in the native american history just because we can presume that few white people where accepted and integrated into native american tribes in historical times. Talking about history in terms of race, instead of culture, not only does not make any sense, but it does also a disservice to history learning. What is important in history is the culture group, not the race. Even if the characters mentioned in the article had black skin (and we are not even sure about that, we can only speculate), it just doesn’t matter, because they were culturally fully italians (or fully romans). They didn’t have a different take or point of view because of their skin color, This is the great lesson to learn for you Americans. You don’t seem to understand the italian way of thinking, Italians generally don’t care about race differences, we never had and we never will, but we care a lot about culture differences, and we are keen to criticize newcomers like the Kyenge not because of her skin, but because of her ideas. She is trying to change the millenary italian culture instead of adopting it, as she was supposed to do as a new italian citizen and as a new italian parliamentarian. She doesn’t want to be part of the italian culture, she wants to adapt the italian culture to incorporate pieces of her own african culture, and this is not acceptable for any italian.
Alessandro de’ Medic appears to have the typical North African look which is of Berber/Moorish ancestry. How does this have anything to do with Black history or anyone having sub-saharan Negroid ancestry? These are two separate groups. North African natives who are Berber/Moors are not Negroid but Caucasian just like natives from India.