Historical intrigue can make for excellent TV, and Netflix’s Medici: Masters of Florence boasts an exceptionally captivating historical premise. But the series fails to capitalize on this advantage: It never captures the real Medici. Despite a talented cast, Masters of Florence immediately unravels to become a soap opera set in a Renaissance faire. While some fictionalizing is to be expected, the series goes too far to manufacture drama when the historical truth is more entertaining than the fiction.
Season One of Masters of Florence commences with the untimely death of the family’s founding patriarch, Giovanni de’Medici, and focuses on his son Cosimo’s push to assert authority over the Florentine Republic. Through a series of flashbacks, we get a clearer sense of the rocky relationship that Cosimo (Richard Madden) has with his wife, Contessina (Annabel Scholey), and how he’s long stood in the shadow of his overbearing parents. A great deal of attention is paid to the threat of rival families like the Albizzi. We are shown a Cosimo who is very much going it alone. He’s unable to trust even his brother, Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), or to put his faith in the abilities of his soft-spoken son, Piero (Alessandro Sperduti). This Cosimo is determined to gain power over the city, but we often find him at the helm of a ship taking on water.
In reality, Giovanni de’Medici did pave the way for the Medici patriarchs to use their unprecedented financial success to strategically bankroll Florence’s position as the cradle of Renaissance civilization. They were indeed masters of the 15th century, who spun a captivating international web of social, cultural, political and economic dominance. Ultimately, a fictional representation focusing on their struggles is far less engaging than the reality of their astonishing achievements. They were masters of their own fate far more often than they were the victims of foul play.
In the series, Cosimo is a reluctant banker. He is pressured to take on the family business although he wants to be an artist. Masters of Florence changes the art-historical timeline to suggest that Brunelleschi’s dome for Florence’s Cathedral—one of mankind’s greatest feats of engineering—was orchestrated by Cosimo because he was trying to spite his less artistically inclined father. The people of Florence have little faith in the project, and are quick to dismantle the dome when the Medici’s rivals convince them that the plague arriving in the city is punishment for the Medici’s questionable morality.
In reality, beneath his modest surface, Cosimo was a ruthless, Machiavellian powerbroker. Indeed, his façade was often transparent, and he displayed his peacock feathers, so to speak, whenever he wished. The Medici were arguably history’s greatest patrons of the arts: Driven by humanism, they used strategic patronage to elevate the family’s positon to unquestionable dominance over the city. Giovanni funded Brunelleschi’s dome, for instance, to solidify the family’s power—and Florentine pride rallied in support of the project. If Cosimo were portrayed accurately in Masters of Florence, as a shrewd political operator rather than an aspiring artist, the series might offer a more complex treatment of its era than one framing the Medici as heroes and the Albizzi as villains.
Masters of Florence doesn’t quite know what to do with the wives of the Medici patriarchs, either. On one hand, they’re rather like Helen of Troy: powerless pawns whose marriages are designed for political gain. On the other, they’re able to conduct their political manipulations publicly and quite freely. In Netflix’s series, Contessina is rather unhappily married to Cosimo, torn between allegiance to her aristocratic birth family and the merchant family she married into. The viewer is presented with a modern marriage; Contessina even wears white. In catering to an audience that might be shocked by the pressure of an arranged marriage, we’re left with one that is stereotypically loveless, but this Contessina is no wallflower—she’s so brazen that she bangs on doors lobbying for Medici interests; rides horseback, clad in armor, into the chamber of the Signoria to negotiate her husband’s stay of execution; and proclaims, irritated, that “there are more ways for a woman to be indispensable than just bearing children.” Not in a 15th-century aristocracy there were not: In terms of fealty to the period, Masters of Florence is wildly off the mark.
It’s as if the writers so desperately wanted to find modern women in their historical source material that they proceeded to invent displays of feminism, but in truth it would have been far more riveting to address the reality that women in 15th-century Florence did not have any visible political power, and were most often effectively abandoned by their birth families after marriage. (This was a republic, not an empire—and women are notoriously repressed in representative systems.) In reality, Contessina and Cosimo had an amicable relationship, but they were not political partners. Renaissance marriages ran the full-spectrum of emotions and yes, there were many instances of unrequited love and requited affairs, but early modern marriages are fascinating for their stark differences from our modern institutions, not in spite of them. By manipulating them, they lose their luster on screen. Consider the nuance and the stealth that Florentine women in fact used to successfully influence their husbands and sons: Is that not more dramatic the fantastical, cartoonish Contessina, whose billowing hair and white steed are reminiscent of Galadriel and Elizabeth I?
Masters of Florence also strives—in a move that’s not exactly innovative in the context of television—to make untimely death central to its plot. Giovanni de’Medici is poisoned by hemlock-painted grapes; Lucrezia de’Medici (Valentina Bellè) is on the verge of death after consuming poisoned food in the family villa; Cosimo himself is poisoned to the point of hallucinations; and his mother, Piccarda Bueri (Frances Barber), dies of the plague. If Medici mercenaries killing the exiled Albizzi in the woods or Lorenzo’s murder at the hands of the Pazzi create quite a bloodbath as the season draws to a close, we’re are left with a duller Cosimo, one who stands scared in his skeleton-filled closet.
Of course, the real story here is how Earth-shattering it was to have a family of bankers, and not aristocrats, grab the reins of power in a late-medieval republic. The Medici came from nowhere, beyond left field, and posed a significant and effective threat to established families. It’s far more insidious—and dramatically compelling—that the Medici, and not hooded assassins, cut down an entire sociocultural and economic system. TV flops when it takes a fascinating historical topic and fails to take its viewer along for the ride. The worldview of the Medici is not like our own: They acted in unexpected (and entertaining) ways in their own right.
The first season of Masters of Florence would have been better served to describe the Medici at their apex because, as in any great tragedy, they will fall hard: The rival Pazzi family and the papacy eventually plotted to kill Cosimo’s grandsons, a vein of potential material not nearly as mesmerizing if one doesn’t see the Medici at their zenith. The Medici were not underdogs, but there’s no reason success can’t make for good television. This is history written by the victors, after all, not the victims. In Masters of Florence, the historical laboratory, so often the site of richly drawn characters and engaging narratives, has been lost: The viewer never got to leave the 21st century.
Christine Contrada earned a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance History from Stony Brook University in New York. She has taught Italian history and culture for over a decade. You can find her on Twitter at @CJContrada.