Giulia de’ Medici:  the probable story of the erased image of a Medici with an African grandmother 


Maria Salviati with Giulia de’ Medici, c. 1539.  Oil on canvas. 

Jacopo da Pontormo, Italian active Florence,  c. 1494-1556.  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore from whose website this photo




The  woman wearing widow’s weeds, Maria Salviati, is the widow of a well-known soldier, Giovanni delle Bande Nere de’ Medici (1498-1526) who died very young.

They were the parents of Cosimo I de’ Medici who succeeded the assassinated Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537) in 1537 as the ruler of Florence.





Gioivanni delle Bande Nere, c. 1546-48, oil on panel.  

Francesco Salviati.  Loaned by the Uffizi, Florence to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2021. 

This is a posthumous portrait to recast his features to resemble those of his famous son, Cosimo I.



The little girl is Giulia de’ Medici, born approximately two years before the assassination of her father, Alessandro de’ Medici, called Il Moro for his swarthy complexion. 






Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici, oil on panel, before 1535.

Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), Italian active Florence, 1494 – 1556/7.  Philadelphia Art Museum




Alessandro de’ Medici was the son either of Lorenzo de’ Medici or of the Medici pope, Clement VII,

and of an African servant, possibly enslaved. 


He was in direct line of descent from Lorenzo the Magnificent. His reign over Florence was short and, for Florentines, brutish and hard.  His  history was submerged in the triumphant narrative of Medici rule which followed with Cosimo I.




Alessandro de’ Medici, c. 1550-1555, oil on panel.

  Cristofano dell’Altissimo, 1525-1605, Italian active Florence.  The Uffizi, Florence from whose website this photo




After his death, his daughter’s care and that of her siblings was overseen by  Maria Salviati, mother of of the new ruler of Florence. 


Giulia’s portrait was painted over in the 19th century so that all that was left was the portrait of Maria Salviati. 


The first I saw this painting I assumed that the erasure was racist in origin. 




as above




The Museum’s archival notes tell a different story. 

The identities of both woman and child were lost by the early 19th century and by the late 19th century the woman came to be identified as a famous Renaissance poet and close friend of Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna. 


Vittoria Colonna had no children, however, and the image of the girl was painted over to make the painting coherent with its new narrative.

1902:  the painting was acquired by the founder of the Walters Museum, Baltimore 

1937: x-ray of the painting revealed the presence of the girl  

1990’s:  the scholar Gabrielle Langdon proposed that the child is Giulia de’ Medici, a proposal validated by further research at the Walters Museum which published it in 2012.





detail from the painting above



Giulia de’ Medici  lived and married (twice) with all the advantages of a Medici.  The Walters notes that her descendants are alive today. 


And I remind myself that my blood pressure would not have shot up if I had remembered that not all such erasures are racist in origin


and that to read history anachronistically is to misread it to the distortion of our own lives and times. 


Not to speak of a possible misdirection of our hopes for the future.








2 thoughts on “Giulia de’ Medici:  the probable story of the erased image of a Medici with an African grandmother 

  1. Fascinating research on your part and certainly convincing. The argument and and your generous conclusion match the rich content of the portraitures. Thank you.

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