Empires - The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2004) Review
(More customer reviews)This four-hour documentary on the Medici has all of the series' strengths (high production values, excellent cinematography) and its great weakness of substituting simple conflict for historical analysis. You might get weary, as I did, of the implicit comparisons of the Renaissance banking family with the Coreleones, but that's relieved by a truly diverse selection of talking heads and viewpoints.
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.
The 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.
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From a small Italian community in 15th-century Florence, the Medici family would rise to rule Europe in many ways. Using charm, patronage, skill, duplicity and ruthlessness, they would amass unparalleled wealth and unprecedented power. They would also ignite the most important cultural and artistic revolution in Western history--the European Renaissance. But the forces of change the Medici helped unleash would one day topple their ordered world. An epic drama played out in the courts, cathedrals and palaces of Europe, this series is both the tale of one family's powerful ambition and of Europe's tortured struggle to emerge from the ravages of the dark ages.