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21st Jan 2022

Feature

New Italian film spotlights 'erased' Black Medici ruler

  • Alessandro de' Medici's tomb, which lies in the New Sacristy in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, has no inscription or name visible (Photo: YouTube)
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Afro-Italian actress, writer and film director Daphne Di Cinto has recently released the trailer for her debut short film about the life of Florentine duke Alessandro de' Medici.

Despite being the first black head of state in modern western Europe, the duke's story is relatively unknown. Di Cinto's new film hopes to bring his existence out of obscurity.

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As such, the production becomes part of a wider push to bring recognition to historic black Italians and thus help those living in Italy today with their struggle for acceptance.

Alessandro de' Medici, nicknamed 'Il Moro' for his dark skin colour, became the first Duke of Florence in 1530. Scholars disagree on his parentage, positing that his mother was an enslaved African woman in the Medici household and his father either Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici or Giulio de' Medici, who would later become Pope Clement VII.

The Medicis were a banking family and an extremely powerful political dynasty. But even so, Alessandro de' Medici would not have had an easy upbringing considering his 'low birth' as the son of a black slave.

In 1530, Charles V and Pope Clement VII made an accord and crowned Alessandro de' Medici Duke of Florence. After just six years, his reign was brought to a swift halt with his assassination by his cousin, Lorenzino de' Medici.

Di Cinto, who featured in the Netflix TV series Bridgerton as the young mother of the Duke of Hastings, has now made Alessandro de' Medici's life the focus of her period drama Il Moro.

"In Italy there still is the tendency to think and say out loud that if you're black you can't be Italian. So, when I discovered the story of Alessandro de' Medici, I had to tell it," Di Cinto says in her crowdfunding appeal for financing the film.

As such, the short film is more than just a commentary on the past. Alessandro de' Medici, like many important Italians of colour, has been largely left out of the history books.

"Despite the importance of the position he held, Alessandro's story seems to have been cast in a corner and his origins still seem to be up for debate," says Di Cinto. As sociologist Mauro Valeri commented, episodes like the black duke's rule are part of "a history that still needs to be written".

In a lecture for NYU Florence, Valeri talks about notable black Italians that have been forgotten after the Fascism of the 1930s redefined Italians as Arian and Catholic. Since then, Valeri argues, the Italian identity has been inextricably linked to whiteness.

This erasure of past black Italians has a profound effect on the experiences of those living in the country today. Growing up in a small town in northern Italy, Di Cinto, who was born to a Seychellois mother and a white Italian father, frequently had her identity as "black Italian" questioned.

Italy's citizenship laws add to the struggle as citizenship is granted on Italian ancestry rather than being born on Italian soil. As such, there are over one million people born or raised in Italy that do not possess Italian citizenship.

This way of awarding citizenship reinforces the notion that 'Italians are white' in the public consciousness. "Those who are 'lucky' enough to have citizenship by birth, but have non-white features, are daily branded and treated as immigrants in their own country," says Di Cinto.

Di Cinto has cast actor Alberto Boubakar Malanchino, a black Italian, as the duke. She also has several black women and Afro-Italians in her crew.

For Di Cinto, this also helps challenge current issues this demographic faces with acceptance in Italian society. "Normalise: this is key," she says. "Normalise that kids with diasporic backgrounds can be talented [...] normalise that black youth can have a brilliant career; [...] normalise representation; normalise that black isn't a synonym for criminal, dangerous and bad."

Alessandro de' Medici's tomb, which lies in the New Sacristy in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, has no inscription or name visible. Di Cinto says that through the short film (which may be developed into a feature film or series), she hopes to reverse this erasure. "We want to remember this Afro-descendant character who was part of history. A duke, not a slave."

Author bio

Rebecca Ann Hughes is a freelance journalist in Venice.

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