Giulia de’ Medici 1535-1588

She looks like an ordinary little girl, holding the hand of an ordinary woman. But the 16th-century painting of young Giulia de’ Medici with her aunt on display at the National Gallery of Art, is now considered to be the first European portrait to capture a girl of African descent.

Portrait of Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici

Major Discovery

Maria Salviati, as in other contemporary portraits of her, wears the clothes of mourning for her deceased husband, the famous military leader Giovanni delle Bande Nere de’ Medici (d. 1526). The little girl holding her hand here is her niece Giulia, who was raised in Maria’s household after the murder of the child’s father, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537).

For years the proposed identification of the child was as Maria Salviati’s only child, Cosimo de’ Medici (1519-1574), who went on to become a Grand Duke of Tuscany. According to this theory, Cosimo, as a young adult, commissioned this image of his mother and himself to honor her attention to his upbringing after his father’s death. The problem with this solution is that the child is clearly a girl with her hair in braids and a girl’s clothing. 

Giulia de’ Medici was a very rich girl, even after her father was murdered by an insane cousin in 1537. Her brother, Giulio, was next in line to be duke, and she could possibly have been a duchess. But they were both no more than 6 years old. So their white cousin Cosimo stepped in. Cosimo went on to become grand duke of Tuscany and one of the greatest warriors in Italian history, but when he first became duke of Florence, in 1537, many in the city knew that Giulio and Giulia had more Medici blood than he running through their veins.

Cosimo commissioned Pontormo to paint a portrait of Giulia with his mother, Maria Salviati, according to Langdon. The painting of the protective-looking Salviati looming over the innocent girl would show Florence that Cosimo had good intentions toward his cousin’s offspring.

Giulia grew up with all the status of a Medici and married another aristocrat. Descendents of hers are alive today.

Langdon said Cosimo treated Giulia “extremely well. Politically it suited his purposes to treat her that way.” He gave her “a handsome dowry,” Langdon said. At Giulia’s first wedding, in 1555, there was a procession of some 200 horses, and she was well received by residents in Florence and by cardinals in Rome. Her grandfather, after all, was a pope.

But Giulia wanted more, Langdon said. She asked for what Cosimo could not give her — a position equal to that of his wife, Eleonora de Toledo. A rift in the family followed, and her image was painted out of the portrait sometime in the 1600s.

Giulia never hid the fact that she was a descendant of African Moors, and a portrait she commissioned of herself at age 25 was heavy on mythological and Catholic symbols connecting her complexion to stories about the divine darkness of God, Valdes said.

“It’s the first defense I’ve seen of a dark person . . . defending his or her blackness in European history,” Valdes said. “This woman felt she had certain rights she was not getting. Whether this was because of color, I don’t know. But I think it was, color was at work.”

“Along with her father Alessandro de Medici’s uniquely racial place in history, Giulia de Medici’s portrait could also prove of some importance since an apologia for her blackness forms the basis of the iconographical elements of the painting. Due more than likely to Giulia de Medici’s social position as a princess and the descendant of a number of popes, whoever assisted the artist with the symbolism he used obtained it from the Neo platonic concept of God as Divine Darkness still current in the theology of the time.” 

Giulia Romola di Alessandro de’ Medici

This portrait of Giulia de Medici could easily become in the field of Black Studies, a very significant work. Instead of being simply a portrait of an Italian princess whose identity as a quadroon is interesting, it shows her breathtaking reaction to whatever apprehensions she might have felt regarding her African descent With whatever theological authority she can claim, she reminds her contemporaries that God, in His Ineffable Unknowability, is also Black.

Sources:

“An Overlooked Color In a Medici Portrait?” https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/11/25/an-overlooked-color-in-a-medici-portrait/5ac15c22-35e2-4f28-98ea-01bf36946c12/

“Giulia de Medici & Her Portrait” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/giuliademedici.html

Portrait of Maria Salviati de Medici and Giulia de Medici https://art.thewalters.org/detail/26104/portrait-of-maria-salviati-de-medici-with-giulia-de-medici/

Wikipedia Entry for Giulia de Medici https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giulia_de%27_Medici

More on Africans in Renaissance Europe at http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/619

More on the mixed (Italian-African) Alessandro Medici and his children at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/medici.html

More on the omission of Alessandro as a Black Italian In the PBS article on him https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/medici.html

Update to the PBS article on Duke Alessandro at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/mediciupdate.html


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