Medici: Masters of Fiction

Cosimo de' Medici. Portrait by Jacopo Pontormo

Cosimo de' Medici. Portrait by Jacopo Pontormo

Medici, Masters of Florence has recently made an appearance on television. Like everyone with an interest in Italy I couldn’t wait to see it. And when I did I wasn't disappointed. Scheming aristocrats. Renaissance backdrops. Italian passion. What’s not to like?

But as it turns out, not everyone has been that enthusiastic. A certain Professor Cardini from Florence University has lambasted the producers for making a show that’s historically inaccurate, describing it as “far from credible”.

Now I didn’t know my Cosimo from my Lorenzo. So I decided to delve into the world of the Medici and find out for myself just how much of the series is fact, and how much is fantasy.

For the historically minded things don't start well. In the first scene, we see Giovanni di Bicci (played by Dustin Hoffman) choking on a grape, and we are led to believe that someone has murdered him. In fact Giovanni, who was effectively the godfather of the Medici, wasn't murdered at all but instead died of natural causes.

That said, the show doesn’t exaggerate the importance of the Medici. They were indeed masters of Florence, a powerful and wealthy family that eventually became absolute rulers. But they didn't start off that way; the Medici were in fact a merchant family that rose to power by exerting influence in all the right places. This ability was helped in no small part by their wealth. As bankers, they lent money to kings and popes and their bank ended up as one of the most important in Europe.

But they weren't just buying influence. The Medici bankrolled some of the greatest art and architecture the west has ever seen, including the cupola of Florence cathedral and work by Donatello and Michelangelo. The series is quick to point out their connection to the arts. Early on we see Cosimo obsessing over designs for the dome of Florence's cathedral, and befriending the man who ended up building it: Filippo Brunelleschi. The architect, a self-professed genius, was famously moody and difficult to work with. A side of his character that's brought to life to great effect by the Italian actor Alessandro Preziosi.

One of the heroes of the story is Florence itself. Though it is every bit as impressive on screen as you’d expect, the face it presents is a little misleading. To start with the facade of the Duomo would have been plain brickwork at that time; the extravagant geometric design of the exterior facade was only added in the 19th century. What's more, the Vasari corridor above the Ponte Vecchio would only have been built in the 16th century by Cosimo I. These little nuances may not seem important, but they’ve left many Florentines in a bit of a froth. Professor Cardini rails against everything in the show, from the Medici's supposed interest in peace, to their beautifully trimmed beards which in reality weren’t fashionable at the time.

One could argue that a few anachronisms are to be expected in a show of this kind. The executive producer says “it was more important to give space to creative licence.” While the screenwriter claimed that he had taken his inspiration from watching the Godfather.

Accuracy aside, the scenes are a pleasure to watch. The political machinations, corridor plotting and jostling for influence have been captured well, and give a real feeling of the time and the characters. If anything, it’s a story of a family that lived for drama. And the Medici would have been the first to remind us that you can’t make a good drama without breaking a few rules.

For more information about the Medici dynasty, visit lovefromtuscany.com

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