The subtitle of Catherine Fletcher’s book somewhat breathlessly tells us that we are going to read about the “The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’Medici,” the titular “Black Prince of Florence.” The blurb on the cover of the English edition from Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize–winning author of historical novels focusing on the political and marital intrigue of the court of King Henry VIII, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, promises us that we will find “nothing … more astonishing” from 16th-century history. The reader begins with great promises and high praise before even getting to the first page.

The first two pages of the prologue do not fail to deliver. We begin just hours from the end of our story, on the eve of Epiphany 1537, on nothing less than “a night of the most dazzling moonlight.” Our subject, Alessandro de’ Medici, duke of Florence, is lured by his perfidious cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici, “Little Lorenzo,” to a bedroom in a house nearby the Medici palace with the promise of a night of pleasure with a beautiful and virtuous woman, though apparently not too virtuous. Suddenly, the napping prince is surprised by his cousin and an assassin who burst into the room and rush at their helpless victim with daggers and swords drawn. Alessandro is treacherously murdered, but not without first inflicting a painful bite on his relative’s thumb. “The first duke of Florence was dead.”

This is the stuff of high drama, and Fletcher has made good use of the sole surviving account of the event, drawn from the testimony of the murderers. She presents the account with a novelistic flair that nonetheless threatens to push beyond the bounds of scholarly historical narrative into the more imaginative realms of the historical novel. The tone of the prologue then suddenly shifts as we meet our author, who seems to hint that she is uncomfortable with flitting about the flame of fiction. “Writing this book, I have sometimes felt that I have been making a compendium of stories, each told by someone with his (and it is usually his) own reasons for telling. In many cases I have only a single source, and cannot check the facts.” Our dutiful historian then tells us that claims that the dark-skinned Alessandro de’ Medici may have been partly of African descent may or may not be true, for evidence is lacking; that they may or may not be part of what was meant as a smear campaign against him after his death.

More importantly, our author informs us with due caution that our racial categories, including what it means to be “black,” are our categories, not those of the 16th century. Whisperings that the illegitimate Alessandro was the son of a “Moorish slave” thus not only turn out to be whispers, but whispers that do not necessarily even have the same meaning or conjure the same racially charged connotations they do for us today.

What has happened to the titular “Black Prince of Florence”? The main claim to our attention provided by the author, or at least by the publisher, is that we are to read a biography of the first European ruler of African descent. Closer inspection of the promotional materials for the book reveals that Alessandro de’ Medici was “arguably” the first “black” prince. To be sure, “The Arguably Black Prince of Florence” does not have the same ring as a title. To be fair, Fletcher is a responsible, even cautious, historian who does not claim more than the evidence warrants.

What we really have here, then, are two books under review. First, we have a careful and clearly written work of historical scholarship on an interesting figure in 16th-century Italy, though a figure probably less interesting and almost certainly less important than promised by the subtitle’s “spectacular life” and “treacherous world.” Second, we have a revealing case of an author not just caught between a rock and a hard place, but hemmed in between two sets of rocks and hard places. The first conundrum is that of an author who must choose between the expectations of historical writing that aims at a popular audience, the kind of audience that enjoyed Mantel’s Wolf Hall, on the one hand, and the scruples of a professional historian who is loath to exceed the warrant of the evidence, quick to qualify any claims, on the other. Despite the novelistic drama of the first pages of the prologue, Fletcher clearly opts to play the historian. The other conundrum is hinted at in Fletcher’s apologetic tone. What is a historian to do with so few sources? This problem concerns not just the absence of the multiple sources required to check the alleged facts of the case and to account for the potential distortion due to the various motivations of the sources. More problematically for this biography, there are precious few sources available concerning the thoughts, actions, and even at times the basic biographical facts concerning the subject of the book. Fletcher doggedly traces whatever evidence she can find, and does an admirable job with what she can. Perhaps at least as interesting as the biography under review, then, is the difficult situation faced by its author in writing the book.

Alessandro de’ Medici was born about 1511 or 1512, the illegitimate offspring of Lorenzo de’ Medici and a servant apparently working in the Medici household, tentatively identified as a certain Simonetta from Collevecchio. Yet even these bare facts are uncertain. Alessandro was also rumored to be the illegitimate son of Giulio de’ Medici, himself of illegitimate issue, who would shortly after Alessandro’s birth become a cardinal and a decade later be elected as Pope Clement VII. Since no one ever formally recognized Alessandro as his son, we cannot be entirely certain of his parentage.

More interestingly, and problematically for the aspirations of this book, we possess no certain evidence concerning the identity of Alessandro’s mother, including her status and her race. Was she a slave or a servant? Slaves were becoming increasingly common in early 16th-century Italy, though still rare, and they usually served as household servants, or occasionally in princely courts as exotic members of what can only be termed human menageries. Some of these slaves were from Africa or of African descent, but by no means all. Even so, the simple term “African” is not so simple, for the term could refer to sub-Saharan Africans as well as to North Africans. Most of these slaves were Muslims, for Christian Europe saw no injustice in enslaving the infidels who had recently retaken Constantinople and who would soon be at the gates of Vienna. (And Muslims returned the compliment by enslaving Christians, as well as their fellow Muslims.) Alessandro’s purported mother, and indeed Alessandro himself, was sometimes referred to as a “Moor.” “Moor” might refer to someone we would recognize as “black,” but it also would be used for an Arab or Berber or some other person from North Africa, or even someone from what we would call the Middle East. Indeed, the term was used for a person of dark complexion, as with Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza, the prince of Milan during the last years of the 15th century, a man no one would dream of calling “black” in the racial terms we would recognize today. Was Othello “Moor of Venice” black? We don’t know for certain what Shakespeare, writing almost a century later, intended. Fletcher explains all this with due care, and she admits the sparse and conflicting nature of the evidence concerning even Alessandro de’ Medici’s parentage. She is to be congratulated for her caution. Still, one must admit that she thereby lets the air out of the balloon right from the start.

We know little of Alessandro’s youth until the unexpected twists and turns of events plucked him from obscurity, but we do know a lot about these events, and the main interest of Fletcher’s book may be her success in conjuring the “Treacherous World” referred to in the subtitle.

The Medici family had dominated Florence for much of the 15th century, rising to prominence as bankers and merchants and ruling the Florentine republic as princes in all but name. In 1494, the family’s fortunes experienced a dramatic reversal when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. Florence threatened, Piero de’ Medici, the incompetent heir of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who had died in 1492, panicked and fled Florence. The Medici expelled, the Florentines resurrected their republic. Among the leading figures of the republic was Niccolò Machiavelli, who makes frequent guest appearances in Fletcher’s story, though as the gimlet-eyed advisor to princes we know from his famous work The Prince, written shortly after the Florentine republic — and with it Machiavelli — fell in 1512. Reenter the Medici. The head of the family at that time was Giovanni de’ Medici, also son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, but his election in 1513 as Pope Leo X meant that Medici affairs in Florence were put into the hands of Giuliano de’ Medici, his younger brother. When Giuliano expired in 1516, power was handed over to their nephew, auspiciously named Lorenzo, though the promise of his great name was unfulfilled, and his subsequent fame owes less to his qualities as an individual or a prince, for he lacked such qualities, than to the cunning of historical accident. First, he is now best known as the dedicatee of Machiavelli’s The Prince. We might see in this the ultimate victory of the pen over the sword. Second, he of short rule and few accomplishments was immortalized by Michelangelo, who carved his tomb along with that of his brother Giuliano for the Medici Chapel in Florence. Tourists to this day flock to see the beautiful tombs with little or no notion of the identity of their contents. Perhaps a victory of chisel over sword. Third, before dying, Lorenzo managed to father Catherine de’ Medici, later the notoriously (Machiavellian?) queen mother of France during the horrors of the French religious wars. And he did so just in time, for he died of syphilis just 21 days after the birth of his daughter. No victors here. Now Fletcher adds a fourth legacy to Lorenzo’s list: the (purported) father of Alessandro de’ Medici.

We have virtually no record of Alessandro’s life until he was called to Florence in 1525 at about age 14 along with his half-sister Catherine. They joined their cousin Ippolito, himself the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici (the one who briefly exercised authority after the Medici restoration in 1512 until his death in 1516). Ippolito was installed in the Medici palace in Florence after the current head of the family, Giulio de’ Medici, was elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523. Ippolito had several advantages over Alessandro: he was about a year older and, although of illegitimate birth, he was not born of a mother of servile status. In addition, Ippolito had been declared legitimate on the very day in 1519 on which Alessandro’s father, Lorenzo, died — a favor evidently not extended to Alessandro himself. Nonetheless, Ippolito gradually lost favor with the pope, and his fate was sealed with the loss of Florence to the republicans in 1527. After the Medici once again retook power in Florence in 1530, the pope paid Ippolito the backhanded compliment of advancing his ecclesiastical career, thus effectively sidelining him in Florentine politics. Still, eager to play the prince instead of the prelate, Ippolito remained an active or potential threat to Alessandro until his death in 1535.

As Ippolito’s position waned, Alessandro’s waxed. He was made duke of Penne, a small province in the south of Italy, and also appointed governor of Spoleto. These positions gave him a certain status and some income, though not much of either. More important for his rise, he was affianced to the illegitimate daughter of the soon-to-be-crowned Emperor Charles V, the most powerful ruler in Europe, although the five-year-old bride would have to wait another nine years for her wedding. Finally, after the Medici regained power in Florence in 1530, Alessandro took the reins under the close supervision of Pope Clement. Tired of pretending not to be princes in their pseudo-republic, and vexed at losing control of the city, the Medici were taking no chances this time: a deal between the pope and the emperor the following year made Alessandro the first hereditary duke of Florence.

Alessandro ruled Florence from 1531 until he was assassinated in 1537, or for a little over six years. His reign is not notable for any deeds, celebrated or condemned. His most notable achievement was the construction of a massive fortress in Florence that bore the Medici arms, an unmistakable symbol of the end of the republic and a rallying point for those who claimed his rule was harsh. Alessandro’s early rule, coming as it did on the heels of the final defeat of the republic, certainly included moments of rigor, as any reader familiar with Machiavelli’s The Prince would expect. But, as Fletcher is eager to demonstrate, Alessandro was not at all an especially harsh prince and his reputation for being a tyrant appears to be largely propaganda by his successors, eager to justify their own rule and how they came to acquire it. Alessandro also managed to sire a few illegitimate children of his own with his long-term mistress, of whom he seems to have been genuinely fond. And in 1536 he finally wed Margaret of Austria, the natural daughter of the emperor, now the (barely) marriageable age of 14 (and a few days). The young duchess soon found herself pregnant, and if their child had made it to birth, Alessandro might have repeated his father Lorenzo’s feat of leaving behind an heir just days before his own death, but a miscarriage came before Alessandro was assassinated on January 6, 1537.

Such was the “Spectacular Life” of Alessandro de’ Medici. Fletcher recounts this life, and even more so the times, in clear and often vivid prose with an eye for interesting detail. Nonetheless, what I found striking about the book was how steadfastly “exterior,” so to speak, both the portrait of Alessandro and the sketch of his times remained.

As for the portrait, Fletcher faced two perhaps insurmountable hurdles. First, Alessandro did not really do very much during his life, including during his brief reign as “The (Allegedly) Black Prince of Florence.” One is struck by just how much of his life was a matter of fortune rather than virtue, to borrow Machiavelli’s terms. His rise to become the first hereditary duke of Florence was the product of accident or luck, from his illegitimate birth, to the scramble for a Medici heir when legitimate heirs were lacking, to the fact that his elder Medici patrons had attained the papacy, to the loss of favor by his cousin Ippolito and his well-timed death (though if rumors that Alessandro had him poisoned are true, we at least have to credit Alessandro with this bit of virtue). One has to wonder in the end whether Alessandro de’ Medici was an interesting enough subject for a full-scale biography, especially if it is doubtful that he was even the “Black Prince” of the title.

Second, and related, the portrait of Alessandro is limited in its depth because we have almost no access to his interior life, his thoughts, feelings, and motives — the potential documentation of letters or memoirs is simply inadequate. Instead, we see him as others reported seeing him: in attendance on his future father-in-law, walking in processions, hunting, playing his part in his elaborate wedding ceremony, ultimately dying on a bed intended by him for other uses. We are often — I think too often — told what Alessandro may or must have thought or felt on a given occasion. Again, Fletcher does what she can with the existing evidence, but in the end Alessandro is never really a fleshed-out person.

As for the times, here too Fletcher’s account remains curiously “exterior” in the sense that we readers “see” a sometimes dramatic parade of people and events, the what of the story, without often getting a good sense of the why. The main reason for this limitation, in my view, is the fact that in writing a biography Fletcher understandably keeps Alessandro at the center of the action where possible, despite the fact that Alessandro is not a compelling character. Fletcher does her best to enliven the portrait of her subject by highlighting the background scenery, but the existing evidence often amounts to little more than household inventories and accounts, orders for clothing and weapons, and the like. If we do not know much about the black prince, we know a lot about the number and duties of his household employees; how many silver candlesticks and horses were given and received as gifts; how many yards of expensive fabrics were ordered for costumes, gowns, and cloaks; and the number and design of tapestries in his bedchamber. We learn that during an ambassadorial visit in 1535 the daily food order was 75 kilos of veal, 14 capons, 24 chickens, 24 pigeons, and an assortment of antipasti, which might include figs and nuts, stuffed prunes, trout paté, lampreys, calamari, and veal tongue, among other things. That plus 17 kilos of “unspecified meat” (perhaps the Renaissance precursor to the hot dog?) for the household servants. If the time-space continuum permitted, he might have combined forces and cellars with Winston Churchill whose annual purchase of liquor, according to David Lough (in No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money), included in 1908: nine dozen full bottles and seven dozen half-bottles of Pol Roger 1895 vintage champagne, plus four dozen half-bottles of the 1900 vintage, six dozen bottles of St Estèphe wine, five dozen of port, seven dozen of sparkling Moselle, six dozen of whiskey, three dozen of 20-year-old brandy, three dozen of vermouth, plus four bottles of gin. Just four bottles of gin? At any rate, the details of food, dress, and décor Fletcher provides do paint a picture, but as our attention is drawn to the scenery we begin to miss the presence of the actors.

These observations lead me back to some final reflections on the two conundrums Fletcher faced in writing this book. I am sympathetic with the problems faced by a historian with so little evidence to go on. My co-author and I faced similar issues, though not nearly so severe, in writing our book on the brief friendship between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume (Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding. Yale University Press, 2009). Books abound on, say, Winston Churchill, in part because of the mountain of available evidence, in part because of the complexity of his character, in part because of his historical significance. Books on Alessandro de’ Medici are welcome, but they are necessarily rare, due to both the limited evidence available and the limited interest of the subject.

The other conundrum — how to write history, or here biography, targeted at a popular audience while still honoring the standards of academic history writing — Fletcher clearly goes the route of the academic historian, even while providing a book that is accessible to a broader readership. But the temptations she must have felt to veer into speculation or even literary embellishment, especially given the limits of her source material! As the academic publishing world has shrunk for a number of reasons, publishers such as Oxford are increasingly looking for a larger market, hunting for the elusive “educated lay reader,” marketing what are essentially scholarly works as breathless bounds through history (or philosophy, or neuroscience). In my view, Fletcher’s book succeeds well as a work of scholarship within the limitations of her subject, and moreover she has succeeded in writing a work accessible to a larger audience that maintains faithfully to the norms of an academic historian. Her book is in this regard a successful instance of negotiating the potential perils of an expanding market of academic books aimed at a larger audience. Hic sunt dracones.

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John T. Scott is professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is The Routledge Guidebook to Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”