Who was Giulia de Medici? Finding a Black presence in Renaissance Florence
Imagine the shock of the restorer when in 1937, in the process of removing the nineteenth-century overpaint, a child became visible in the portrait of Maria Salviati (shown below). Although art historians explain that the erasure was due to a mistaken belief in the 1800s that the portrayed figure was the childless Vittoria Colonna (a Renaissance poet), racist motivations should not be excluded, as it was done in an era marked by colonialism.
Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, ca. 1539. (License: CC0 1.0)
A quest to determine the identity of this mystery child ensued, and research published by Gabrielle Langdon in 2006 inspired new discussions as well as a Walters Art Museum exhibition and extensive online catalogue, Revealing the African presence in Renaissance Europe. Langdon provides new assessments, supported by contemporary black historians, concluding that the child is the illegitimate daughter of Alessandro de Medici (1511–1537), a member of the leading Florentine family who is widely believed to have been Black.
The child, Giulia de Medici (circa 1535–1600), was left under the custody of Alessandro’s cousin, Maria Salviati, whose own child Cosimo I de Medici grew up to become the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. Art historians have highlighted that Giulia’s tight curls and facial features appear to match her father’s, suggesting she shares his African heritage. The girl grew up in Cosimo’s country residence, Villa di Castello, in the hills surrounding Florence, where she lived with Bia, Cosimo’s illegitimate child of a similar age.
The children were brought up by Maria as respected members of the family, with rooms as luxurious as those for Cosimo’s own children. After Bia died of fever, Giulia continued to be integrated into courtly life, being offered education and a dowry which would be worth about $9 million today. It seems therefore that neither her illegitimacy nor her African heritage affected her place in Medici courtly life.
Blackness in Renaissance Florence
The case of Giulia seems to speak to attitudes towards Blackness generally in early modern Florence. Historians such as John K. Brackett, who study Giulia’s father Alessandro, the son of Lorenzo de Medici and the first Medici Duke of Florence, have argued that his Blackness had little impact on his life; his assassination was not primarily racially motivated, but for reasons of political rivalry.
Olivette Otele and John Brackett both contend that for Alessandro’s contemporaries, the greatest challenge to his power was his social background – his mother, Simonetta da Collevecchio, who is understood to be freed from enslavement, was, after all, still a peasant. It is this low place in society that contemporaries appear to have judged more severely, not her African heritage (although an intersectional approach aids connection between these factors). It is also important to remember that the concept of race had not been established in this period. Blackness held different meanings in Alessandro and Giulia’s world than it does today.
This is not to negate the presence of Black enslavement or servitude in Florence at this time. Documents of the Cambini bank in Florence, a mercantile firm in operation between 1420 and 1482, suggest that Black African slaves had been shipped between Lisbon and Florence since 1461. It is clear that many who were perceived as Black were in fact servants or enslaved, with Alessandro and Giulia representing the small proportion of Blacks in the upper echelons of society. Other depictions of a Black presence in Renaissance Florence can be found in the city’s many museums. The Journey of the Magi in Palazzo Riccardi, for example, shows a huntsman, presumably a Black African, in the foreground next to Cosimo de Medici.
Traditions of ignorance and ‘invisibility’
If these elements of Florence’s history are new to you, the reason is unfortunately that Black narratives have often been ignored. In some cases, this is due to outright or institutional racism, but often the argument is made that there is not enough information or sources to establish their existence. Italy especially has a tradition of sidestepping its Black and colonial histories. A change in art history practice, triggered by a conference organised at Oxford in 2001, has generated publications and exhibitions reconsidering the extent of this early modern Black presence.
The case of Blacks in Florence belongs to broader studies of ‘invisibility’. Scholars who focus on other historical periods and places, such as Crenshaw, Germann and Alexander, have explored the multiple layers of oppression that can make Black women invisible, calling for new intersectional methodologies.
The connection to EUI
So why, you might ask, feature the case of Giulia for the EUI’s blog, in a city that is arguably oversaturated with information on the Medici? The observant reader will have noticed that Maria, Giulia’s guardian and aunt, shares her surname with the name of the building hosting the EUI’s law and history departments, Villa Salviati. This is because she is a daughter of Jacopo Salviati, the building’s former owner. We can imagine, therefore, the possibility that Giulia visited, dined, or slept in the very buildings where we work.
It is important for us as university scholars to recognise the presence of Black and mixed-race people in Renaissance Florence, especially Black women and children who often get ignored in the historiography and archives. When we contextualise the EUI and its location in an interdisciplinary manner, we invite ourselves to move away from the traditional stories of White Medici dukes, Dominican monks, and art by Botticelli and Michelangelo and open ourselves to de-centring Whiteness in our understandings of early modern Europe. Recognition of one’s own history is an important step towards decolonisation, and the EUI is no exception.
Amber Burbidge is a PhD researcher in the Department of History. Her thesis looks at representations of Black women in early modern material culture in France, Britain and the Netherlands but she also holds more general interests in both representations of women in art history, and in themes of decolonisation.
Click here for more information about Black History Month (February 2023) at the EUI.