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The Medici Godfathers of the Renaissance by PBS home video
October 20, 2007

The Medici Godfathers of the Renaissance by PBS home video

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. After centuries in which the Catholic Church has controlled thought and ideas, one city at the heart of fifteenth century Europe is poised on the threshold of an intellectual and artistic revolution.  Cosimo de' Medici and his father have established the world's largest banking business, whose 'clients' include popes and princes.  Outwitting his political rivals and establishing his family at the heart of Republican Florence, Cosimo uses his phenomenal wealth to scour the continent for relics of antiquity, breathing new life into the study of the ancient past.  As Cosimo's power grows, his friend Brunelleschi builds a great dome over the cathedral of Florence.   It will become the greatest achievement in western architecture since ancient times.  Donatello and Lippi create original works for the Medici family, and a religious festival is held in Florence, sparking a new explosion of classical learning and inventive thinking.  Florence flourishes as a new Rome.  When Cosimo dies, the Florentine republic declares him Father of the Nation.

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With this four hour documentary, and others in the series, PBS hopes to expose a wide audience to culturally and historically significant people and ideas. The Medici family, whose artistic patronage brought into existence much of what we now call "the Renaissance", and whose abuses of power likewise contributed to the Protestant Reformation, are certainly a worthy subject... but in the quest for mass market appeal, the filmmakers cut too many corners, making what could have been a true work of art into little more than interesting television. First, the positives: the cinematography is stunning, the narration clear and factually accurate (although the narrator's voice is, to me, somewhat jarring), and the pacing of the story is superb. Additionally, great care was obviously taken to cast actors who actually resemble the historical figures, and keeping them silent only adds to the realism. 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.

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he 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. Using charm, patronage, skill, duplicity and ruthlessness, they would amass unparalleled wealth and unprecedented power. They would also ignite the most important cultural and artisitc revolution in Western history- the European Renaissance. But the forces of change the Medici helped unleash would one day topple their ordered world.

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