An Interview with Catherine Fletcher

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • November 1, 2016

The historian discusses the unlikely rise (and untimely fall) of Alessandro de' Medici.

An Interview with Catherine Fletcher

Alessandro de’ Medici’s rise and fall is nothing short of amazing. In a power struggle between his first cousin, uncles, and other distant relations, the bastard son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici became the Duke of Florence. He reigned for six years until his murder in 1537. Hunter, lover, son-in-law of the emperor, and favored nephew of his uncle, Pope Clement VII, Alessandro inherited the finest duchy in renaissance Italy.

In The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de' Medici, author and historian Catherine Fletcher has produced a detailed account of the short life of Alessandro’s short, remarkable life.

Sometimes, it seems that, with history, whoever writes the best story wins. Is this true?

Yes, one of the difficult things about researching Alessandro’s life was that it suited so many people to make him the villain. His enemies really did get a grip on the narrative of these years. Obviously, they would do that, but later members of the Medici family who wanted to build bridges with his rivals also found it useful to disown Alessandro to some extent.

It’s like reading a horoscope: If it’s good, we believe it. If it’s not, we’re free to ignore it. This can’t be true for the historian. How does history inform us? 

I don’t believe that historians are ever 100 percent objective — we always have to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out of our books; otherwise, they’d go on forever. But I think we have a responsibility to represent what happened in the past to the best of our ability, and that means including the negatives as well as the positives.

What happened to Alessandro’s children, Giulio and Giulia, by Taddea Malaspina?

Giulio joined the Knights of St. Stephen, a military order dedicated to fighting the Ottoman Turks that was founded by Alessandro’s successor, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. Giulia married a distant Medici cousin, Bernardo, who became lord of Ottaiano in the kingdom of Naples.

Was there any stigma when it came to getting involved with someone of another race?

In the first half of the 16th century, ideas about race weren’t nearly so firm as they would become. For example, enslaved people in Renaissance Italy came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. That contrasts with the situation later in the Americas, where slavery and blackness became intrinsically linked. Europeans certainly had prejudices around skin color, and that might well have affected the way they thought about relationships, but we shouldn’t read back modern categories into this period.

What was the day’s usual treatment of illegitimate children?

They were considered second-class by comparison to legitimate offspring, but illegitimate children could still sometimes rise high in Italian society. That was particularly the case when both parents were of high rank. Where the mother was a servant or slave, it was less likely.

Do you think shows like “Game of Thrones” stir interest in history?

Yes, I find that a lot of history students come to the subject having learnt about it first on TV. A lot of people grumble about inaccuracies in TV history, but there are lots of things TV shows can do in terms of creating atmosphere that you rarely get from academic books.

How long did the research take? The writing? Was it a pleasure?

There were about two years when I was entirely focused on this book, but I’d written about the same period for an earlier book, The Divorce of Henry VIII, so the material wasn’t entirely new — if it had been, it would have taken a lot longer! I enjoy writing, but it does have its frustrating moments: usually when I’ve lost a reference to something I read earlier.

Did you begin with conclusions or form them along the way?

When I began, I really didn’t know how the project would work out. The conclusions definitely happened along the way.

Do you believe that Alessandro d' Medici was or wasn’t of African descent?

On the balance of probabilities, yes, I think he was. But I think it’s important to be honest with readers about the limits of the source material available on that point.

Why was Rome the “Theatre of the World”?

That was a phrase used in Rome later in the 16th century when the Catholic Church wanted to position itself as a global power. At the start of the 16th century, it was the most important diplomatic center in Europe, attracting ambassadors from across the continent.

Can you explain the importance of the Benedetto Varchi episode, with the haughty servant demanding a slave? To me, it sounds no more violent than any other tale of the time. In fact, this part of the text says hardly anything about Alessandro at all except that he cooperated without much ado. Why was it important enough to include?

I was intrigued by the fact that Varchi, a historian who’s often hostile to Alessandro, decided to include an apparently trivial story about Alessandro’s entourage being held up by a search for an escaped slave. In part, I included it because I was keen to communicate the broader context of Italy as a slave-owning society, but also because I wondered at Varchi’s motivation. I’m not sure it is a text about Alessandro co-operating — one reading is that his entourage is helping to hide the runaway.

Since he didn’t protect the runaway, how is it a metaphor for Alessandro's failure to enforce social order and govern well? 

As I say, one interpretation of that story is precisely that the runaway isn’t found because he’s been allowed to disappear into Alessandro’s entourage. I find it interesting (in the light of the allegation that Alessandro’s mother was a slave) that Varchi wanted to tell this story and link it to Alessandro.

What I find confounding about the historian is the desire to write a book but the refusal to speak. How do you tame yourself? Keep yourself from indulging in your own speculation?

I have another file where I put all the speculation. I’m tempted to write a novel to fill in the gaps. Maybe one day I will. I have a great idea for a conspiracy theory about what really happened…

Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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