The history of Western civilisation may well have been very different without the contribution of an emerging class of bankers who financed the Renaissance from the 15th century onwards. The Florentine clan of the Medici was the most powerful of this group, rising from relatively humble beginnings to great heights of both fame and infamy.
The eight-part series Medici: Masters of Florence ruled Italian television earlier in 2016, clocking seven million viewers every night, and was snapped up by Netflix in short order. Streaming currently, it is a fascinating study of medieval passions and intrigue.
The story begins with Giovanni de’Medici (a barely employed Dustin Hoffman) starting a bank in Florence in 1397. A ruthless strategist, Giovanni transformed from a man who was left next to nothing by his father to become one of the richest men in Europe. Yet, his fortune was fragile. Banking was a rising profession at the time, but it could not entirely shed its connection with usury, which was a sin in the eyes of the Church.
In the first episode, we learn of Giovanni’s death by hemlock poisoning. The murderer ingeniously sprayed hemlock on the grapes that Giovanni relished while walking in the sprawling vines that abutted the family estate. His son Cosimo (Richard Madden) is deputed to run the bank.
An artist by persuasion, Cosimo seems at first ill-suited to running an operation whose commercial considerations mask high political drama. The series switches between the past and present day. As a young man, Cosimo visited Rome and fell in love with a laundress who was also a muse for painters of nudes. On learning of the affair, Giovanni bribed her to disappear from Cosimo’s life, setting in motion the story of a man who would fight a perpetual battle between desire and duty.
Cosimo ends up marrying Contessina (Annabel Scholey), born of noble blood – a necessity, in Giovanni’s eyes, if Cosimo is to hope to be Florence’s putative ruler. Their tense marriage is a highlight of the show, as Contessina becomes a devoted wife to a husband who is at best lukewarm to her presence and her status in the Medici household.
Enemies have plans afoot. The primary threat comes from Rinaldo Albizzi (Lex Shrapnel) who, as a noble, is deeply bitter at the passing of the old order. The Medicis’ wealth is not the only cause of envy. As bankers to the Pope, the clan has one foot inside the Church which, in medieval Europe, is synonymous with absolute power.
It is easy to see why the series was such a hit in Italy. It is a fast-paced drama that borrows heavily from modern thriller elements. Historians have debated whether Giovanni was truly murdered, but the series runs with that premise and encases it in multiple layers of conspiracy to fashion a highly rewarding viewing experience.
The dramatis personae are fully fleshed men of honor and blood. Cosimo’s brother Lorenzo, played by the impossibly handsome Stuart Martin, is a victim, like his brother, of his father’s shenanigans in matters of love – a tragic tale that unleashes other tragedies in the Medici household. Marco Bello (Guido Caprino) is Cosimo’s fiercely loyal Man Friday who does not think twice before pushing his sword into the hearts of his master’s enemies.
Among the elderly characters, two stand out. Ugo Bencini (Ken Bones) is the Medicis’ trusted accountant who has served several generations of the family, imparting him the kind of intimate knowledge that will prove dangerous. Senor Guadagni is the head of the Florentine Parliament (called the Signoria). The multifaceted Brian Cox plays the gentle Guadagni whose kindness is of vital importance to Cosimo at crucial junctures.
At the end of Season 1, Cosimo has cemented his position in Florence, and is now eyeing other European markets. Given what we know about the Medicis’ long-lasting influence – including their patronage of artists like Michelangelo who came to symbolise the Renaissance – the show’s makers should easily find plenty of material for many more seasons.