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Recently I watched this interesting documentary about the Medici family history on History Channel: “Medici Godfathers of the Renaissance”, but I just realized that the entire series (4 episodes) is on Youtube and this allowed me to watch them a second time and make notes on the flaws this documentary has.
I remember some strange things in the documentary, that either I didn’t like or were not fitting what I know about Florence Italy history and the Medici family, so I decided to do some research and write down all my objections to this series: after all, it’s about my beloved city of Florence.
Below you will find my review and comments on the series: Medici Godfathers of the Renaissance, and you can watch the entire series for free.
Episode 1/4 – Birth of a dynasty
Cosimo de Medici The Elder
The documentary starts showing Cosimo de Medici (Cosimo the Elder) going in remote monasteries and paying monks to have access to ancient books. I doubt Cosimo personally went searching for these books, but for sure he was a collector, and he was the founder of the Medici library that later will be named after his grandson Lorenzo. Cosimo the Elder was educated by monks, who were the only depositaries of knowledge after the fall of the ancient Roman Empire; their main activity was indeed copying books by hand. Cosimo’s father, Giovanni di Bicci, was aware of the power of knowledge, and knew that his son would have a huge advantage on the competitors thanks to this culture. Cosimo mastered several languages, and having branches of the Medici company all over Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, he controlled information. Not differently from today, information is power.
The Medici Family origins
At approximately 6:50 in the Episode 1 video the narrator says: “Giovanni has risen from rural poverty…”. We don’t know the exact origin of the Medici family, but it’s safe to say that Giovanni de Medici was not a poor farmer. His family lived in Florence already, and we have scattered news about family members who were involved in the institutions of the Republic of Florence. The Medici had properties in Mugello, a rural area north of Florence, but we don’t know exactly if the Medici family originated there, or just bought land after becoming wealthy.
Baldassarre Cossa the Pirate?
Shortly after, we learn that “Baldassarre Cossa was a former pirate who had embarked in an alternative career in the church”. Actually Baldassarre Cossa was part of a noble family and started his career as a soldier, but definitely he was not a Jack Sparrow boarding ships in the Tyrrhenian Sea. I doubt he kissed the hand of Giovanni de’ Medici as seen in the video, but for sure Giovanni supported his election and was rewarded in the best possible way: he became the banker of the Popes.
The “100 years old” church
At 9:50 in the video I hear that “…for over 100 years a great unfinished Cathedral had gloomed over Florence…”. This is untrue! Florence Duomo was started in 1296, and work was halted and restarted many times (the plague hit Florence in the years 1348-51); the new church was erected enclosing the old (and much smaller) Cathedral of Santa Reparata, which was torn down in 1375, after the roof of the new church was finished. In 1418, when the competition between architects for designing the dome is started, the tambour (the architectural element that sustains the dome) was still a work in progress. It’s true that it took 140 years to build the Cathedral, but it’s not like the project was abandoned for 100 years.
The Modest Medici Family
When Giovanni died, “…the city of Florence mourned a modest patron…”. I wouldn’t call him modest, considering he sponsored the Ospedale Degli Innocenti (‘Hospital of the Innocents’, also known in old Tuscan dialect as the Spedale Degli Innocenti), and the Sagrestia Vecchia (‘old sacristy’) in San Lorenzo church, both designed by Brunelleschi.
It was not Cosimo to commission the “cupola di Brunelleschi”, like it appears in the video; the Duomo construction was managed by an institution, the Opera del Duomo (which still exists and is responsible for maintaining the monument to this day), while the Arte Della Lana (wool manufacturer’s guild) was responsible for managing the funds. It’s possible that the Medici promoted Brunelleschi, but most probably it was Giovanni to sponsor Brunelleschi and not his son Cosimo, who later preferred another architect, Michelozzo, to design the two buildings he is remembered for: Palazzo Medici and the complex of San Marco. Vasari, in his biography of Brunelleschi, even said that Brunelleschi’s design for Palazzo Medici was refused by Cosimo: “The design was without rival in Florence, but when Cosimo saw it, he rejected it, more because he wished to avoid arousing the “envy” of his fellow citizens than on account of the huge outlay that such an ambitious project entailed. Deeply offended by the unexpected response, Brunelleschi broke the model “into a thousand pieces”.
Brunelleschi the bum
Brunelleschi, the genius of Renaissance Florence, is depicted as a sort of homeless, dirty person making sketches on the floor. Filippo Brunelleschi was part of a family of ancient origins, and his father was a lawyer; he received a good education, was wealthy enough to live comfortably, and he was highly regarded in Florence. He probably didn’t need to make his sketches on the pavement.
Cosimo de Medici: the nature of a winner
What I like in the video is what they say about the personality of Cosimo de Medici, which is probably the reason for the success of the Medici family: tolerance is the key, granting people freedom in their private affairs so that they will work with more enthusiasm and be grateful. Florence, and Italy in general, had many lords in history, and the successful ones were all like Cosimo; don’t try to force us, or your reign will be short: ask Savonarola or Mussolini!
I also like how this documentary series points at the personal friendship between Cosimo and Donatello: unlike Brunelleschi, Donatello was part of a humble family, and he was never wealthy enough to live comfortably. Cosimo consistently helped Donatello in many ways to get more work, and the tomb of the artist is just a few steps away from the tomb of Cosimo inside the San Lorenzo Basilica, which speaks volumes about the Medici family.
Episode 2/4 – The magnificent Medici
In the very first part of the video we can see Piero de Medici (Piero The Gouty), son of Cosimo The Elder, and father of Lorenzo de Medici, returning to Florence from his countryside villa, and we can see how Lorenzo saved his father’s life. What actually happened was that Piero was informed about the conspiracy and used a secondary road to go back to Florence, so when Lorenzo de Medici met the enemies, Piero was safely on his way home. Piero “The Gouty” could barely walk, he certainly couldn’t ride a horse with his son. The conspiracy was led by Luca Pitti, who had been a good friend of Cosimo de Medici, and was so rich that his home, the Pitti Palace (under construction at the time), was even larger than Palazzo Medici. After the conspiracy, Piero was very moderate: nobody was condemned to death, but he started a commercial war that caused bankruptcy for the Pitti family.
A Queen for Florence: Clarice Orsini
In those times, every marriage of the upper but also the middle class was an agreement between two families, to get mutual advantages. Every family in Florence wanted her daughter to marry Lorenzo de Medici, and the Medici didn’t want anybody to be unhappy, so they decided to search elsewhere, and a Roman noblewoman was perfect for this. Clarice Orsini, depicted as a “top model”, actually wasn’t very handsome and is remembered as a very religious woman, who conducted a retired life. Lorenzo de Medici preferred his secret lover Lucrezia Donati.
The two teenagers
I like the way PBS shows Lorenzo and Giuliano (around 10:10 in the video). All of a sudden, at the age of 20 and 17, Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici find themselves being the richest man in Europe, responsible for the city of Florence, and all the eyes are on them. The time of parties and celebrations is over. Now they have a great responsibility: especially Lorenzo, the firstborn, is supposed to be the next ruler of Florence, the person who takes the most important decisions and that delivers the most important favors, which is the way the Medici bankers held their power in Florence during the 15th century.
Botticelli “the heathen”
During the Renaissance, painters worked on commission. Unfortunately, we don’t have any document on Botticelli’s pagan allegories, and the first news on these paintings are from Vasari in his “Lives”, around 80 years later. We can’t say if Botticelli “called his work La Primavera“, but most definitely he didn’t. The elaborate subject was suggested by the philosophers and poets in the entourage of the Medici family. Most historians think that “Botticelli Primavera” and “Botticelli Birth of Venus” were not made for Lorenzo de Medici “The Magnificent”, but for his cousin. Definitely, Botticelli didn’t use Clarice Orsini (Lorenzo’s wife) as a model for Venus, like the video suggests.
The description of the Pazzi conspiracy is quite accurate in general, but at 22:21 we see a sniper trying to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano with a rifle. In 1478, a rifle could barely hit a barrel from 10 steps, and it took a life to refill with powder. The Pazzi were not that fool, although fool is exactly the meaning of the word “pazzo” in Italian! At 26:16 we see a wounded man in the place where the Pazzi would expect to see the corpse of Lorenzo. That man, Francesco Nori, was a common citizen of Florence who defended Lorenzo at the cost of his own life. He was buried with all honors in the Basilica of Santa Croce, and his tomb is right in front of the tomb of Michelangelo. After the conspiracy, Lorenzo saved Florence from war, cutting a deal with the King of Naples. That’s when people in Florence named him “Lorenzo the Magnificent”.
Michelangelo at the Medici family court
Michelangelo was actually spotted by Lorenzo and invited in Palazzo Medici. Most probably his period there had a crucial influence on the great artist. Michelangelo was very religious, but luckily he was not influenced, like Botticelli, by the fundamentalist arguments of Savonarola.
Medici Bank goes broke
Many branches of the bank were forced to close in this period, mainly because Lorenzo, busy with politics, left his bank in the hands of incompetent managers, who pursued their personal interest.
Lorenzo de Medici repents
Lorenzo was scared for his soul and called Savonarola. We don’t exactly know what happened, because people who were there reported different versions of the story, someone says he was forgiven, someone says he was damned by the monk. Whatever happened, Savonarola actually didn’t take the power until 1494, two years after Lorenzo’s death.
Episode 3/4 – The Medici Pope
The Medici exiled
The Medici are in very bad shape: after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Savonarola, the Dominican friar, takes the power in Florence and the Medici family is banished from the city. The documentary won’t tell us all the story: Lorenzo died in 1492, but only in 1494 Savonarola will take the power. Lorenzo’s first born, Piero “The Unfortunate”, was the ruler of Florence for two more years, but, as the documentary pointed out in episode 2, Lorenzo had lost a fortune: the Medici family was not as rich as it used to be and it wasn’t easy to make favors to people in exchange for their loyalty. In 1494, the King of France was determined to get back the kingdom of Naples (the Kings of Naples had been French in the past), so he invaded Italy, and of course he had to go through Tuscany. Piero de Medici tried to be the hero, like his father: he left Florence and went to Pisa to meet with the King of France, and was able to cut a deal, saving the city of Florence in exchange for Pisa. Piero de Medici expected to be received back in Florence as the savior of the city, but the enemies of the Medici, together with Savonarola, pointed at him for cutting a bad deal: the Republic of Florence officially banished Piero and all the Medici family (and Palazzo Medici was sacked). Piero will start a military career fighting for the King of Naples, dying after few years.
Lorenzo’s investment pays off
Giovanni de Medici, second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a Cardinal of the holy Roman Church since 1489, when he was just thirteen: his father had literally bought his position. It was an investment for the Medici family, that will pay huge dividends. After being exiled, one would think Giovanni de Medici could have gone to Rome, but few years earlier, he tried to prevent the election of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), so maybe that was not the best place to go. Only six years later, when the Borgia Pope needed new alliances, he was received in Rome. In the meantime, Savonarola was excommunicated and condemned to death, but Florence didn’t want the Medici back. Michelangelo’s David, made between 1501 and 1504, was a clear warning for any tyrant willing to rule the city. It’s not true that “Michelangelo remained in Florence while remains of Medici insignia were wiped from the streets”. Unlike Botticelli, who was heavily influenced by Savonarola, Michelangelo hid himself in the convent of Santo Spirito and then escaped from Florence going to Bologna and then to Rome; he came back only after Savonarola was condemned to death. Giovanni de Medici will have to wait for a new Pope, Julius II, to get Florence back. Basically he sold his vote to elect the new Pope in exchange for help to conquer Florence. The Medici family was back on track!
In 1513, Giovanni de Medici was elected as the new Pope, Leo X. His first decision was to name his cousin, Giulio de Medici, archbishop of Florence and cardinal; another investment that will pay large dividends. Leo X was very similar to any other Pope of that age which means, in other words, the opposite of what a Pope should be… taking a look at the seven deadly sins, his favorite were gluttony (he made huge banquets, as described in the documentary) and pride (when his nephew married in Florence, he couldn’t be there for the party, so he called Raphael (!!) to paint his portrait, and sent the painting to the party) but, more than anything, greed: to raise some cash he started to sell indulgencies across all Europe, which ultimately led to the Protestant reformation. I like how the documentary explains that Leo X underestimated Martin Luther, especially in the part where Germany (and Northern Europe in general) were considered the land of the barbarians, the land of the gothic style, as opposed to the Renaissance: that’s exactly what people thought in Italy.
Within two years from Leo’s death, his cousin Giulio de Medici was elected Pope. So who was this guy? He was the illegitimate child of Giuliano de Medici, Lorenzo’s young brother, who was killed in the Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzo de Medici had adopted this child: again, the open minded “magnificent” made a wise investment. Clement VII had to face the disaster started by his cousin when, in 1527, the German Emperor Charles V invaded Italy pointing directly to Rome. The city fell and was sacked for eight full months, with unprecedented violence: the “barbarian” soldiers lived up to the expectations. Clement VII saved himself escaping from Rome, but in the meantime, in Florence, the Republic exiled the Medici family again. In the end, it was not a religious war, that was just an excuse, the real goal was power; it was a matter of time until the Pope made an agreement with the Emperor, and it was the Medici family to get the most advantages from this deal: the Pope would have crowned Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor, but in exchange the Emperor would have conquered Florence for the Medici family; not only this: the illegitimate son of the Pope, Alessandro de Medici, would have been named Duke of Florence.
Episode 4/4 – Power vs Truth
The first Duke of Florence
The episode starts with the assassination of Alessandro de Medici, first Duke of Florence: I would like to go more in depth on this. Alessandro was the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII. He also probably was the first black Duke in Europe, because his mother, a servant of the Pope, was black. The Duke’s nickname was Alessandro “il Moro” (where Moro means dark, referred to both hair or skin: also used to identify the Arabian people during the Crusades). Alessandro de Medici became the first Duke of Florence in 1532; it was an important change for the city, which had been a Republic for several centuries. The Medici had been the rulers of the town for more than one century, but they were just citizens, not even officially involved in the institutions, and they were not aristocrats. The designation of Alessandro de Medici as Duke of Florence marks the point of no return: now the Medici are aristocrats and also the official rulers of Florence. Alessandro de Medici was considered a tyrant, not many in Florence loved him: there were German soldiers in Florence, helping him to keep his power, and the Duke also built a fortress (Fortezza di San Giovanni) which was not meant to be a defensive structure for the city, but from the city. Not even his relatives loved Alessandro, and they plotted against him: in 1537, it was a cousin, Lorenzino de Medici, to cheat the Duke: Lorenzino arranged a meeting at night with a woman that Alessandro had unsuccessfully tried to seduce, but instead of the woman, a killer broke into the bedroom, killing Alessandro.
The young Cosimo de Medici
With Lorenzino escaping to Venice to save his life, the allied of the Medici family now had only one hope: the 17 years old Cosimo de Medici, who lived in the countryside with his mother. He was completely unrelated to the political fights, he was a Medici and he was young. Not only the Medici supporters but also their enemies, who wanted the Republic back, agreed that Cosimo de Medici was a good choice, because they were confident in their ability to manipulate such a young man: they were deadly wrong! It was an unexpected
Giorgio Vasari and Cosimo de Medici
Giorgio Vasari was definitely the favorite artist at the court of Cosimo de Medici, but it was not an easy and straightforward relation, as showed in the documentary, and it took time. A temporary exhibition two years ago at the Uffizi Gallery had on display many letters and diaries by Vasari, showing how it took years to Vasari to be even considered, given the fierce competition. Vasari claims that he personally picked up the pieces of Michelangelo’s David, after the statue’s arm was broken by a bench fallen from Palazzo Vecchio. This is probably not true, but it was Vasari to restore the statue for Cosimo. By the way, Giorgio Vasari was just eight years older than Cosimo de Medici, not an old man compared to a seventeen years old Cosimo, as seen in the video.
The “braghettone” (large underpants man)
At approximately 10:40, the video makes a digression on Michelangelo’s Final Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The artist who “corrected” the fresco covering all the nudes was Daniele da Volterra, an apprentice of Michelangelo. Because of this, he was called with a nickname: braghettone. What the video doesn’t say, is that the addition was made in 1565, one year after Michelangelo’s death; I don’t know why the narrator says “Michelangelo was not impressed”. The recent restoration of the fresco uncovered all the nudes by Michelangelo: only a couple of “underpants” were left, to remember the corrections made by Daniele da Volterra.
Cosimo I Grand Duke of Tuscany
Cosimo was not just difficult to manipulate: he was aware of his position and ready to take the absolute power on the city. His allied was the German Emperor (who was also King of Spain), while the Republican party found help by the King of France; Cosimo not only won the war, but conquered back Pisa, and also conquered the Republic of Siena: Florence was now the capital city of a larger country, and Cosimo became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. I like the way the video explains the relationship between Cosimo I and the bureaucracy, which ultimately led to the construction of the Uffizi (offices), and also the Vasari Corridor, meant to be a safe passageway through the city.
In 1550, Vasari wrote the first edition of his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” (a second edition followed in 1568). This book, even today, is the most complete work in Art History, and most of the information on the works of art you can see in Florence are contained in this book, along with many humorous anecdotes (some of them are true, other ones are legends or creations by Vasari himself). As a whole, the book describes how the Renaissance deployed in Florence to finally reach perfection with Michelangelo. Vasari in his book first used the word “rinascita” (re-birth) that later will identify the Renaissance.
Galileo Galilei and the Medici family
The actor impersonating Galileo Galilei is the same as the ancestor of the Medici family Giovanni back in episode 1. This is hilarious in a way but probably depends on how much money was available to produce the series. The Medici actually defended Galileo Galilei from inquisition and I like the way the documentary explains the dilemma the Medici had to face, between truth and conformity to religion. At 44:55 the video shows a copy of the book by Galileo “Dialogo”; this book was recently on display at the temporary exhibition “Once in a Lifetime” at Palazzo Pitti. What the documentary doesn’t say is that the church didn’t want to allow Galileo Galilei to be buried in consecrated land, as a Christian, but the Medici secretly buried Galileo in their family chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce. The Medici dynasty died out in 1737, but the last Medici Grand Duke, Gian Gastone, ordered that a monumental tomb be built in Santa Croce for Galileo, right in front of Michelangelo’s tomb. It was the last notable act by an open minded dynasty that ruled Florence for more than three centuries.