Famous Families

Giulia de Medici and her Portrait

Read the November 2001 Washington Post article on the race issue controversy over a portrait of Giulia.

The Medicis 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. Probably the most readily available exposition of this particularly Franciscan brand of mysticism was St. Bonaventure's Itenarium mentis in Deum orThe Soul's Journey to God. To fully appreciate the symbolism that was attempted in this portrait it should be pointed out that the Medici were in religious state matters, officially devoted to St. Francis.

Behind Giulia on her left can be seen an ornately carved chair of state. In an 1982 article, Gabrielle Langdon, a Canadian art scholar, pointed out the artist had used the incline of the armrest to depict upwardly sloping terrain. She explained that the climbing figure she was able to discern with the help of x-ray equipment, had been meant as the spiritual aspect of the comparatively larger sleeping figure, which is a representation of Hercules. Professor Langdon maintains the scene is an allusion to the Choice of Hercules, a popular Renaissance allegory illustrating the hero on the upward path to Virtue as he disdains the attraction of Vice.

Returning to a more overtly Christian reading, it would also appear that a mountain, Monte la Verna, is in fact, also being alluded to. This geographical spot, after all, is precisely where St. Bonaventure received the inspiration to write his Itenerarium. The reason for the Saint's visit to Monte la Verna was that this was where St. Francis, during a vision of a crucified six-winged Seraph, had become a stigmatic by miraculously acquiring the wounds of Christ.

The Medicis From the anecdotes regarding Alessandro's blackness and how opposition political factions tried throwing it in his face, the epithet that apparently most upset him was da Collavechio. Since moro would not have been as insulting back in the 16th century before the Battle of Lepanto, the fact that his mother, Simonetta, had subsequently married a mule driver from Collavechio was, instead, used to great advantage by his enemies who would taunt him as Alessandro da Collavechio. I do not think, therefore, that it would be reaching too far to suggest that some kind of parallelism is to be understood between colla vechio or the old hill and Monte la Verna or the Mount of Spring or New Mount. Is Giulia not pointing to the theological speculation of God as Divine Darkness or Blackness associated with the latter Monte as some kind of justification or defense of the ethnic definition of her grandmother so inextricably tied to the former hill? I would be surprised if she isn't.

The Medicis The six wings of the seraph became for St. Bonaventure, the six stages of the journey through which the soul must progress. To the Renaissance mentality so infatuated with Greco Roman imagery, the cameo of Mercury who also has six wings: two on his heels, the two of his caduceus or staff and the pair on his helmet is, therefore, a classical reference to the Seraph of St. Francis. Dr. Langdon's supposition that the medal of Bacchus Giulia so instructively point to is a Neo platonic allusion is not only accurate, it is the key to understanding the iconographical program around which this portrait was painted. The patristic source of St. Bonaventure's ideas is none other than Dionysius the Aereopagite. Dionysius, considering Giulia's African ancestry, is extremely important since he is one of the earliest of the Church's teachers to describe God as the...Ineffable and Divine Darkness. Since Bacchus is simply the Roman version of the Greek Dionysius, the medallion is obviously meant to remind the viewer of the beatific vision which is the goal, the very objective of every soul as explained in St. Bonaventure's "Itenerarium."

In summary, this painting offers a surprising theological way of thinking about blackness (just as more Aristotelian references to God have reinforced archetypes of whiteness since the Age of Enlightenment.) As one of the first persons of colour in modern history whose response to racism has been recorded, Giulia de Medici's magisterial pronouncement is of utmost importance to those of us in the new world who are still suffering from the results of this ugly social phenomenon. Furthermore, because of Giulia de Medici's relation to the centers of temporal and spiritual power at the time, the defense she prepared for herself was the most authoritative. She employed a Neo platonic premise which is canonically irreproachable even by those standards which are adhered to by the most conservative curriculum advisers today. Furthermore, whatever interest is triggered by the theological mysticism that informs this painting, it should not create the kind of academic controversy more Afro Centric ideas tend to provoke. For like St. Bonaventure's "Itenerarium" which is the key to this particular painting by Allori, there are centuries of western religious speculation that evolved precisely along these lines.

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.

Written and Researched by Mario de Valdes y Cocom an historian of the African diaspora.

discussions | blurred racial lines | audio stories | june's family tree | bi-racial portraits | how to search family trees | readings | reactions

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation