Empires - The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
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From a base in 15th-century Florence, the Medici family used charm, patronage, duplicity, and ruthlessness to amass wealth and power. The Medicis also ignited Western history's most important cultural and artistic revolution, the Renaissance, but doomed their own ordered world. This epic drama in the courts, cathedrals, and palaces of Europe traces a family's powerful ambition and a continent's tortured struggle to emerge from the Dark Ages.
- Making of The Medici
- Who's Who: key characters of the Renaissance
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There are other problems, though. Nearly every entry in the "Empires" series has had difficulties with characterization, and "The Medici" is no different. Lorenzo de Medici, for example, is portrayed as an enlightened ruler, a public-minded human being and an art patron whose career was sabotaged by religious fundamentalism. You'd never know he covered his debts by stealing from the public treasury. Savonarola is accurately depicted as a puritanical maniac, but his appeal to Florence is never fully explained. One minute the Florentines are sipping grapa and discussing Platonic forms, the next they're tossing their copies of "The Republic" on a bonfire. For "The Medici," it's enough to show Lorenzo as a patron of learning, and Savonarola as a fundamentalist, creating a black and white conflict that dehumanizes both and makes a mockery of the competing and often contradicting strains of piety and humanism found in many Renaissance figures. It also makes ordinary Florentines look like dupes: Savonarola was a fanatic, but his Puritanical, anti-Medici sermons had resonance with a city that was tiring of Lorenzo's abuses.
The third episode on the Medici popes moves in a similar direction. This is the weakest of the bunch. The narrative is little more than a society-page list of parties and paintings, mixed with random acts of violence and a barebones timeline of the two pontiffs' lives. Intervals with Michelangelo are enjoyable, but brief. And the series again simplifies the protagonists. Leo and Clement were wastrels whose excesses helped spark the Reformation. They lived large and often led their armies into impious war. That's all correct. But if Leo X lived it up, he was also sincerely religious. He wasn't unique, either: Many medieval and early Renaissance rulers saw no conflict between hedonism and piety. Given the chance to explore this odd trait, "Empires" shies away and opts for scenes of Leo killing off his enemies.
The documentary is worth a purchase, though. The first episode on Cosimo de Medici is one of the best explorations of Renaissance politics I've seen on television, and Brunelleschi is given his due in both raising his dome and inventing perspective. If Cosimo's failings are passed over, the overall assessment of his rule is fair. One wishes the film would point out that common families like the Medici rose to power because the Florentines abolished feudalism in 1290, but that's a minor nit to pick.
To be fair to the filmmakers, you can't fit everything about the family in a four-hour documentary, and "The Medici," at least, hits the basics and doesn't get anything wrong (unlike Empires' "Martin Luther," which told us the faith is a Freudian rejection of father figures). This is probably the best treatment of Renaissance politics television will ever come up with, so you might as well seek it out, and hope the next "Empires" film fixes the flaws of its predecessors.
To me, this documentary felt very incomplete. I don't want to say disappointing, but I would expect better from PBS. The documentary does teach you a few things about the Medici, but many aspects remain in the dark. For example how the Medici's banks worked, its relationship to Papacy, why the Pope turned against the Medici and closed the branches... none of these questions are answered. The documentary starts with Cosimo de Medici looking for manuscripts of classical Greek thinkers, but we are not told why the sudden interest in the classical period. The first episode ends with the death of Cosimo, but the second episode seemed to begin much later, with Lorenzo Medici. They skipped a generation. Why Cosimo was a patron of the arts was not explained well - the only explanation was that this gave them political capital, but how that happened was unclear. In the second episode, people suddenly turn toward Savonarola and start burning their books, etc. How the mood shifts so suddenly is not explained at all. As some other reviewers mentioned, the characters are also one-dimensional. Their complex motivations and different dimensions of their personality, why they did what they did are not explained well.
The series seemed to focus too much on what was happening in Florence, but nothing was said of what was happening elsewhere in Italy and how the relationship with Vatican was changing. The bank was a European enterprise but we really have little knowledge of the dynamics of external relationships with other power centers. Why does the Pope send military forces to Florence and kill both Lorenzo and his brother?
That said, I really enjoyed the detailed descriptions of how Brunelleschi built his dome and his invention of perspective. I also enjoyed the first episode in general. Unfortunately, the series generates many more questions than it answered for me. Nonetheless, as someone who knows little about the period, it piqued my interest and made me want to learn more. So I guess I can't say I am disappointed.
If you know little about the period, this series may be a good starting point, but I don't think it will satisfy your appetite. Those who know more about Renaissance may be disappointed due to sins of omission.