Illegitima e Un Po Nera (Illegitimate and a little Black)

Author’s note: The title references one of ways in which people in 16th century Florence would refer to people of mixed heritage. They are a little cringe-worthy to our modern ears for sure but to be clear, colorism and finding ways to minimize blackness are still alive and well in our time.

When looking towards Florence in the 16th century, one immediately encounters the Medici. Encountering the Medici, a woman of African-descent immediately notices that there is something about Alessandro that bears further study.

It did not take me long to find the sometimes controversial view that Alessandro was not just illegitimate but also of mixed African and Italian heritage. There is little new here as historians were writing about his lineage during his lifetime and his nickname was Il Moro. There are questions of whether his mother was a slave or a free servant, or whether she was African or also of mixed heritage. Those facts may be lost to time. Still, the specifics do not change the fact of his lineage. One need only observe the tortured contortions made during and after his life to hide the African thread in order to see that this would be unnecessary if not for racism and proof to the contrary.

Fast-forward to this reenactor. I know my own lineage. My family are a mix of Spanish, French, Yoruba (Nigerian), and possibly Persian lines that came together in the Dominican Republic. The lack of clarity is a testament to both the complicated history of slavery and colonization on the island, and the fact that intermarriage was common during all of those shifts. I grew up in an awareness of the African influences on our religious practice. I later learned that this influence was specific and Yoruba in nature. I am the only light-skinned person on my paternal side so I did not have to look far to see our African heritage. In creating a persona who would have lived in 16th century Florence, and with the example of Alessandro before me, I sought to imagine a person somewhat like myself. One who shared my heritage, who was also light-complected, and for whom these challenges would be tangible. To that end, I also made Fiore an illegitima.

Illegitimacy was a complicated affair in Renaissance Italy. There were different types of illegitimacy and each of things carried different societal import. An illegitima, was a recognized illegitimate person — acknowledged by the their father. This was the highest status an illegitimate person could attain short of being made legitimate through a papal act (yes, this happened and more often that one would think). This often meant that you were raised within the household of your father’s family either with his other children if they existed, or in a liminal space between family and servants. The act of making Fiore illegitima also makes her African lineage harder to hide despite lighter skin.

Illegitimacy would have been a dance for one who wanted to hold a high social status. For Fiore, also challenged by her gender, she would have needed more power to be relevant. To this end, I made her mother (from whom her African lineage comes) a woman of wealth from a powerful family. I also made her mother irresistible to Fiore’s father, Giovanni Bardi, by making her a musician in the Court of Ferrera. More about the fabled Ladies of Ferrera and Giovanni Bardi in another post.

So that is where my reenactment life begins — as an illegitima of African descent, born in wealth, possessing a maternal dowry, and living in her father’s house in Florence. All of her clothing, items, and actions are directed from that beginning to her ultimate goal — secure social standing in the court of the Cosimo di Medici. In this way, I suspect her life would have had similarities to Giulia di Medici’s (Alessandro’s daughter). This is an avenue of research I plan to pursue at a later time.

So as you look at the garments and objects cataloged in this blog, understand this — there are no accidents in Fiore’s life. All of her actions move towards her goal. Every garment is a public act. Every object is for public consumption until legitimacy and acceptance are hers.

If you wish to know more about Household Politics, Illegitimacy in Renaissance Italy, and/or Alessandro di Medici and other Black people in Europe here are a few of my favorite resources:

Earle, T. F, K. J. P. Lowe, & V. M. Vaughan, ed. Black Africans in Renaissance Europe; Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Fletcher, Catherine. The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kuehn, Thomas, Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence.  Ann Arbor:   University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Matchette, Ann. “Women, Objects, and Exchange in Early Modern Florence.” Early Modern Women 3 (2008): 245-51. Accessed January 9, 2020.

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