The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici by Catherine Fletcher

Let me preface this review by saying that I believe academic scholarship should always be written with a priority for accessibility: the language should be evocative and immersive, perhaps even bordering on fiction, without sacrificing nuance and academic details. Histories in particular are tasked with chronological transport; it is my belief that they should do this without requiring a maximal effort on the part of the reader.

Fletcher’s The Black Prince does all this, and with an ease that belies the hard work of writing. The Black Prince sends the reader back in time so effortlessly; the reader can feel the tension of the Florentine court, the potential for danger at every meal (poison) and around every corner (gangs of rich young men armed with daggers and arrogant tempers).

The Black Prince is academic writing for a general audience done right.

The Black Prince ostensibly revolves around Alessandro de’ Medici, the half African, half Florentine illegitimate son of a Medici scion (though which one is a matter of debate in this work); however, it also about much more than that. This history offers the reader a velvet texture of Renaissance Europe through vivid accounts of the intricate Habsburg, Vatican, French, and Florentine connections via marriage, money, and ambition.

That said, race is less of a category of analysis here than is class, religion, or aristocratic birth. This is no shade on Fletcher’s work; The Black Prince makes the profound point that race — as we understand it — was not an analogous factor in this period of time, in this Renaissance world. Indeed, it was class, religion, aristocratic birth, wealth, and connections which were the more influential factors in matrices of power. “Race” did exist, but functioned and featured in aristocratic society very differently than it would a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years later.

Fletcher does take us through the span of Alessandro’s life; the book is bookended by his birth and death and includes all the major events of his life and that of his domain, Florence, in his lifetime; but this is a work about the Renaissance and the politics of the Apennine peninsula in this period.

In short, a very worthy read.

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