How historically accurage is the Medici Masters of Florence Series?
The series Medici: Master of Florence is a family drama of the famous Medici household that shaped the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century and continued to be influential long after. The series begins with the death of the household patriarch, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (Dustin Hoffman) who may have died of poisoning, and the subsequent control of the family business by Cosimo de' Medici (Richard Madden), who then led the household along with his brother Lorenzo de' Medici (Stuart Martin).
What story does the series tell?
The series begins with the poisoning of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and Cosimo de' Medici taking over the by then well known and established Medici bank. By this time, the business was flourishing and among the largest in Europe with branches in many cities. The family had close connections with the papacy and they were responsible for the finances of the Pope. Throughout the series, flashbacks show Giovanni training his children, Cosimo and Lorenzo, to take over the family banking business. Giovanni could be best described as extraordinarily controlling. He meddled in both his children's lives and was obsessed with determining who they could marry. Giovanni pushed Cosimo to marry Contessina de' Bardi (Annabel Scholey). Although Contessina was loyal to Cosimo, they had a strained marriage. Giovanni also constantly interfered with Lorenzo's love life.
The first season is driven by two stories. First, Cosimo's election to the Signoria of Florence, the ruling entity of Florence, destabilized the balance of power in Florence. Rivals, such as Rinaldo degli Albizzi, began jockeying for power to weaken the Medici's grip on Florence. The Cosimo's quick rise convinced the Albizzi family to accuse Cosimo of usury. Although they fail to have Cosimo sentenced to death, Cosimo was exiled to Venice. Second, at the beginning of the series, Giovanni, Cosimo's father, is murdered. The series also follows the investigation conducted by Marco Bella (Guido Caprino), a close family associate of the Medicis.
After his exile, Cosimo returns to Florence as the city began to all apart. The problems started with financial difficulties and were exacerbated by the city's unruly mercenaries. The Signoria became desperate and invited Cosimo back to Florence. Upon his return, Cosimo returned the favor successfully exiled exiling Renaldo Albizzi rival, who had taken control of the government in Florence. Albizzi himself is murdered as he tries to begin his exile, which implicates Cosimo since he was seen as his main rival. However, that was a plot by Jacopo de' Pazzi, another member of the Signoria and prominent family head in Florence. He had Albizzi killed to try to frame Cosimo so he could take the banking account of the Papacy. This plot failed when a letter was uncovered that implicated Pazzi (Lex Shrapnel) in Renaldo's death. Lorenzo, Cosimo's brother was also killed after he and Marco captured a Pazzi assassin. Despite the loss of Lorenzo, the Medici family, especially Cosimo, regained both the Pope's favor and power over Florence.
The investigation into Giovanni's death occurred concurrently with the various Florentine machinations and power struggles. Tensions in the investigation of Giovanni's murder also boiled over after Lorenzo and Marco Bello were accused of his murder. Lorenzo and Marco were quickly exonerated after Marco uncovered that a close banking associate with Medici's, Ugo Bencini(Ken Bones), confessed to murdering Giovanni. Ugo was forced to kill Giovanni when he interferred with Ugo efforts to kill Lorezo's lover who was pregnant with Lorenzo's child. Ugo regretted killing Giovanni as part of the of this soap opera plot.
Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464): The series depicts him as a wise and cunning head of the Medici family who also began the tradition of patronizing the arts that the Medici family became known for in the Renaissance. Historically, this was certainly the case and he was often seen as the first great head of the Medici family in the Renaissance period, although his father Giovanni helped to establish the Medici bank. The series shows Cosimo learning much from his father, but family tension also created a sometimes strained relationship. In particular, Giovanni was keen on having his sons, in particular Cosimo, marry women that provided greater power to their family. Cosimo's love of the arts was shown early on, although his father was seen as someone who discouraged such pursuits. Cosimo is historically known to have commissioned Donatello's David, which was a controversial piece for its time. He is shown as supporting Filippo Brunelleschi in his work in completing the great dome of Florence's cathedral. While Cosimo's support is accurate, others in Florence also support Brunelleschi in his masterpiece (Figure 1).
Giovanni di Bicci de' Medic (1360-1429): He was the chief founder of the Medici Bank that ultimately gave power and wealth to the Medici family. Much of the business acumen that Cosimo learns comes from Giovanni, which is likely true given Giovanni's great success in establishing the bank and making the family perhaps the wealthiest in Florence by his death. The first episode suggests Givoanni was murdered, but there is no historical data to support this. Furthermore, the series depicts his death in a warmer season, but he died in winter.
Contessina de' Bardi (1390-1473): She is depicted as having to marry Cosimo, where both were unhappy for a period but did eventually learn to live with each other. As the series depicts, she was from an old nobel family that, in fact, had lost much of their wealth. Cosimo marries her for her family connections and name, while Contessina is married to Cosimo for his family's wealth. The series depicts her getting involved in the political matters of the city and saving her husband from execution, prior to Cosimo being exiled, but in reality this likely never happened and others intervened to save Cosimo.
Lorenzo de’ Medici (1395-1440): He is the younger brother of Cosimo who helps run the bank with Cosimo after their father's death. While he did, in fact, run the bank's business in places such as Rome, helping to lead that important branch of the bank, he likely died of natural causes and was not murdered.
Marco Bello: In the series, he is an important associate of the Medici family. He leads the investigation of the murder of Cosimo's father. However, he later leaves Florence because of the false accusations against him by Lorenzo and Cosimo in their father's murder. Nevertheless, he retained loyalty to the Medici family by helping to uncover the Pazzi plot. There are no historical documents about his existence.
The series has a mixed record in depicting historical events. Many of the buildings, for instance the famous Florence Duomo, was shown, but the facade depicted was not built until the 19th century. The series takes liberty with some important historical facts, such as how characters, including Lorenzo, Giovanni, and Albizzi died, but in reality all of them died a natural death. Cosimo's wife probably was not as involved in politics as depicted, given that society was very patriarchal at this time, although she may have used some indirect influence. The Albizzi was shown as being against the type of art the Medici tried to promote and actively tried to stop work on the dome in the cathedral, but we know little about this.
Other facts are at least partially accurate, such as the exile of Cosimo, the decision to exile Abizzi, and the war with Milan shown. Venice was, in fact, where Cosimo did go to exile. Furthermore, this likely was the main reason why Cosimo was invited back to Florence, as Cosimo had withdrawn his banking activities from Florence, helping to enrich Venice as capital began to flow there. The slave Cosimo obtains as a gift from Venice, Maddalena, did exist and he did, in fact, father a son with her, who did later become an important priest supported by the Medici family despite being illegitimate.
The family's rise during Cosimo's father's time is accurate, and they did influence who became pope through manipulation of cardinals. It is not clear, however, that Giovanni was against patronizing the arts. He simply may have been more focused on enriching his family and establishing the bank. He likely did influence who his sons would marry, but this was not unusual for the time and most families would often marry their children off due to the influence of the family patriarch. It is true, however, that Cosimo began the tradition of patronizing the arts and architecture that the Medici family became known for in the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, Cosimo was one of the most important figures in the early parts of this period.
The series is a political drama that is somewhat based on some facts about the Medici family during the time of Cosimo, who patronized the arts and helped to secure the family's political influence in Florence that would last long after his death. The negative side is the series tries to create drama from deaths that did not occur as depicted, such as the death of Giovanni, but this likely is done to help make the story of Cosimo and the rise of his family more appealing to audiences.
- For more on Cosimo, see: Kent, D. V. (2000). Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: the patron’s oeuvre. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- For more on Giovanni, see: Hibbert, C. (1974). The rise and fall of the house of Medici. London: Lane.
- For more on Contessina, see: Franklin, M. A. (2006). Boccaccio’s heroines: power and virtue in Renaissance society. Burlington: Ashgate.
- For more on Lorenzo, see: Strathern, P. (2007). The Medici: godfathers of the Renaissance. London: Vintage Books.
- For more on the Medici family history and Florence's history, see: Hale, J. R. (2001). Florence and the Medici (New ed). London: Phoenix.
- For more on Cosimo's family history, see: Ewart, K. D. (2006). Cosimo De’ Medici. New York: Cosimo Classics.
- See Kent 2006