The Netflix Television Series Medici: Masters of Florence is all about the family regarded historically as perhaps the western world’s most famous during the period known as the Renaissance in Italy. The Florentines of the Quattrocento were an elevated bourgeoisie of successful merchants and bankers and the city linked via the Arno to Pisa and then to the sea (now 12km away). During this age of non-standard shipping units, one had to be able to readily calculate contents and quantities of shipments very rapidly.
The rule of 3, also called the Golden Rule or Merchant’s key, was widely used in everyday life to determine ratios, whether in currency exchange or to solve problems posed by various systems of weights and measures practiced in the different cities in the North of Italy. This concentration on mathematics permitted men of the Quattrocento to approach works of art and architecture with a specific attention to formal structures, enabling them to see bodies in terms of volume and surface.
While wanting to be men of peace and trade, the Medici came up against the city of Florence’s most vocal family the Albizzi, who by 1427 were the most powerful noble family in the city, far richer than the Medici. It seems the Albizzi family were far more interested in waging war than sustaining commercial viability.
The battle between Cosimo Il Vecchio d’Medici (Richard Madden) and Rinaldo Albizzi (Lex Shrapnel) became personal, and is a feature of Series One of Medici: Masters of Florence. The series is visually stunning and well acted, despite producers playing fast and loose with some facts and the timeline.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers.
In Episode 2, the differences between Cosimo and Rinaldo are taking a huge toll on the people around them and on the economy and future of their city.
Cosimo’s wife Contessina (Annabel Scholey) answers a knock on the front door to find two men, a weaver and a stonemason wanting to force their way in to her house to find gold. Keeping her wits about her she sends them to the Mint, advising them that if you ransack this house you will be arrested. She bravely bars the front door and asks her maids to send for Cosimo’s right hand security guard Marco Bello (Guido Caprino) to post guards.
Continuing our story going back and forth between the present day (1420’s) and events of twenty years ago before when Cosimo’s father Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman) was poisoned in a vineyard, we are reminded his sons Cosimo and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin) didn’t really have a say when Giovanni was around and in many ways grew to resent him for it.
We start back at the point when 20 years before Giovanni is taking Cosimo to meet his future father in law Count de’ Bardi (David Bradley) and his daughter Contessina, to whom Cosimo is to be betrothed.
Her parents originally bankers have attained noble status but are facing ruin by owing money to the King of England. Not even noble blood can erase debt and the head of the family her father has to sell his prize possession, his daughter off to the highest bidder. The family will also give a dowry worth of the association, despite marrying her into ‘trade’, which for them was truly a social come down.
Cosimo is reminded by his bride to be’s father that while it may be difficult to climb the heights of power, to fall is very swift and easy… a lesson for the future. The father’s both start to bargain with Giovanni seeking to profit greatly from the two families union. This doesn’t go down very well with Cosimo, who feels the loss of dignity and his honour just as keenly as his feisty bride, who was packing to flee with her lover the night her father told her about her new obligations.
The wedding ensues and when his new wife asks Cosimo is he always so thoughtful and quiet at dinner, he leaves suddenly telling her business calls. After he has gone his mother by way of explanation for his abruptness, requests her new daughter-in-law give her son time to get over a failed affair with another woman in Rome, in which she advised his father to intervene.
They paid Bianca, the girl he loved off with gold coin, because they considered she was well below their own station in life and the one they sought for their son.
Contessina understands as her father had advised her the marriage was not about her choice of husband, but about her saving the family. She was expected to make sacrifices too, despite her being keen on someone else.
Cosimo is angry because he believes a man must live his own life, but his father tells him only a foolish man lives for himself, a wise man lives for a purpose. Yours is to serve this family he reminds him, which I founded and gives him a crucifix given to him by his father to remind his son of his duty… in and out of the marriage bed.
His brother Lorenzo tells Cosimo marrying into nobility is not all that bad when he finds him burning his drawings ahead of his prospective bride’s arrival, for now he’s to live the life of a banker.
On their wedding day Cosimo tells Contessina he does not like being mated, like cattle and cannot believe she likes the idea either, asking ‘why go through with it’? She tells him because it benefits my family.
This is like red rag to a bull as Cosimo takes her outside the room where all the parents are gathered and he forcefully tells her that after their marriage she will only be loyal to him, not her own father, and she yields.
Back in the future Contessina and her and the wife of Cosimo’s son Piero (Allessandro Sperduti), Lucrezia (Valentina Belle) has been poisoned as she takes to her bed unwell.
Cosimo sends his manservant and security buffer Marco Bello to seek an antidote to hemlock which was used to poison his father, just in case. The apothecary tells Marco it is too late for an antidote if it is hemlock.
Marco Bello reports back to Cosimo he may be the chemist who sold the hemlock that killed his father, offering to kill him so the Albizzi can never question him, however Cosimo is against such action.
Cosimo has been dreaming of when he used to draw while he is in Rome and now wants to help by paying to put the Dome onto the Duomo (Cathedral) at Florence. So he meets with the art intelligentsia to talk about how it could be done and finds them all wanting.
Then into the meeting walks Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) who declares himself a genius ahead of his time. Brunelleschi (Alessandro Preziosi) tells Cosimo the artist sees what nature hides. He then proceeds to bedazzle his patron with his extraordinary model for completing the Dome (which still exists), explaining his method for a buttress hidden within two domes, each supporting the other
If you fund me, he tells Cosimo, it will be an act of faith
Lorenzo heard a rumour his brother had agreed to finish the Dome and reveals his hostility to their mother who explains ‘The dome will boost the economy of Florence’… a great many people will be employed in its construction. This will make the people grateful to the Medici, not the Pope… and Cosimo will hold back the tythes due to the Pope to complete the work.
Lorenzo tells Albizzi while he is intent on war outside the Cathedral (Duomo) the Medici are intent on creating beauty inside.
Cosimo and his son Piero ride out to where the war is raging… they are going to visit the condottieri General Francesco Sforza (Anthony Howell), Duke of Milan because they are old friends. Albizzi is trying to have the mercenaries fight on but Sforza arrives, having been well paid by the Medici to announce the terms of a truce and to declare that he is withdrawing the troops from Lucca – the war is over.
Marco Bello advises Cosimo the apothecary who provided the poison has been killed. Cosimo orders him to find out to whom the initials on the knife he had found found plunged into his back belong to. When he does Marco is dismayed and keeps what he believes may be the shocking truth to himself, which will surely come against him.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
How did the hot-tempered goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi, who failed to win the commission to add the main doors to the cathedral previously and with no formal architectural training, create the most miraculous edifice of the Renaissance?
Well, it is a story all on its own –