Prominent Black & Mixed Race Men of Renaissance Europe

We are thrilled to bring you our very first guest post from children's author Maria Tumolo. She is also writes a blog called Tiger Tales which explores parenting as an expat mixed heritage family.  


During my time at university many moons ago, I was intrigued by the ‘cross-pollution’ of cultures between Europe and Africa during the Renaissance age. It seemed to me that Europe gained more from the encounter than some historians would readily admit. It’s known that scholars travelled to Egypt to study. (Yes, Egypt is on the African continent.) For example it recorded that the Greek Astronomer and Mathematician, Sosigenes of Alexandria, advised Julius Caesar to adopt ‘the modification of the 365-day Egyptian solar calendar but with an extra day every fourth year (leap year).1 This came into effect in 45 BC.’ Other notable Greek Scholars who travelled and studied in Egypt were Plato and Pythagoras.2 However, I was curious to know more about the African presence in Europe during the Renaissance. It’s known that not all the black people in Europe during this time were not slaves. While searching the internet, I came across a review of an art exhibition that was run back in 2012, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It was entitled Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe. I was fascinated by lives and stories of the individuals it featured. I didn’t want too long a blog post. Therefore, I’ll focus on three male historical figures, Black and Mixed Race. I present to you: Alessandro de’ Medici, Antonio Nsaku Manuel Vunda, and St. Benedict of Palermo.

Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537) - He was the first Duke of Florence, because he was officially declared to be the only son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici. Thus, the next in line to rule Florence.3 Historians now believe that Alessandro was the illegitimate child of Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, Lorenzo II’s nephew who later became Pope Clement VII. His mother an African slave named Simonette worked in the household of Lorenzo and his parents during their time of exile in Rome. While his paternity was disputed his maternal ancestry was not. In keeping with Roman law, his mother was freed after his birth. Letters from mother to son revealed she lived in poverty, in Colle Vecchio with her husband and two children.4 Alessandro was the first of the Medici to be installed as a hereditary ruler of Florence. It’s suspected that his ethnicity was not usually mentioned by historians because they were uncomfortable with the fact that Alessandro's descendants married into eminent houses all over Europe. 

Marquis of Ne_Vunda_imagefromRealHistoryww.jpg

Antonio Manuel, Marquis of Ne-Vunda (Antonio Nsaku Manuel Vunda) - He and came from the Kingdom of Kongo and was sent to represent the Mani Kongo to the Pope in the Vatican. Portuguese catholic missionaries first landed in the area in 1490, at that time the country already had centralised state rule.5 When the first bishop died in 1956, based on recommendation of the King of Portugal, Alvare II, an ambassador was to be sent to the Vatican as display of obedience, negotiate the appointment of a new bishop and other matters. It is claimed, the demand for support from the Pope to end the slave trade was the other matter. When Alvare II died his successor decided to ‘Africanize’ the project and opted to send an African Ambassador, which pleased Pope Clement. Dom Manuel Antonio Nsaku Vunda, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Kongo arrived in Rome January 3 1608.6 He died three days later, on the feast of Epiphany. Pope Paul V asked that he be buried in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in which the Spanish court was the protector. Today, you can see the statue known as Nigrita at the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica.

St. Benedict of Palermo (1524-1589) – (Benedict the Black or Benedict the Moor). He was called Moor due to his colour and not due to his ethnicity. He was born to slave parents, in San Fratello, Sicily. When he and his parent were freed, they lived as peasants. He and his parents earned a small income. However he it was said he would to those in need. Aged 21 he became a solitary, eventually settling with other hermits at Monte Pellegrino. ‘He was made superior of the community, but when he was about thirty-eight, Pope Pius IV disbanded communities of solitaries and he became a Franciscan lay brother and the cook at St. Mary's convent near Palermo.’7 Against his will, he was appointed superior of the convent when it opted for the reform, though he could neither read nor write. After serving as superior, he became novice master but asked to be relieved of this post and return to his former position of cook. His holiness, reputation for miracles, and his fame as a confessor brought hordes of visitors to see the obscure and humble cook. After his death, he was canonized in 1804. ‘He was used by the Church and colonial European powers to convert African slaves to Roman Catholicism.’8 His feast day is celebrated on 4th April. Patron saint of African Americans and black missions, today his devotees can be found far flung from Buenos Aires to Bahía and the Bronx.

I realise that this post has been dedicated to men. The only notable female I was able to find during the renaissance was Guilia de’ Medici, daughter of Alessandro de’ Medici. Although you can’t discuss the renaissance age without talking about the Medicis, I wanted this post to feature figures from other walks of life.











Image Credits

Alesssandro de’Medici- Getty Images

Antonio Manuel, Marquis of Ne-Vunda- Real History WW

St. Benedict of Palermo- The Root

Further Reading

Black Africans in Renaissance Europe/ by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe


About the author- Maria Tumolo

I’m a Trinidadian born Surrey based wife, SAHM, blogger and children’s book writer. My blog The Tiger Tales explores: parenting as an expat, mixed heritage family life and natural hair. I luv Dalpuri Roti. I’m an island girl raising a family; living life with British style and Trini panache. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @MsXpat

Maria (MsXpat)

Adamu Waziri