Netflix continues to pile on to feed the appetite for period drama with their latest in Renaissance intrigue, Medici: Masters of Florence.
I admittedly don’t have my finger on the pulse of the media-consuming public, but I am assuming this is largely Game of Thrones fan-out.
I, myself, jumped on the Song of Ice and Fire bandwagon a couple of years before the HBO series. At the time, I thought it was an older series (having heard about it “around” for some time), and was really shocked when I realized the books weren’t all written yet. It took took me a few chapters to acclimatize myself to the the slightly-altered language, but once I got past that, I took to the series with a vengeance. I recall thinking from about 3/4s into the first book, A Game of Thrones, that what the book got right was a detailed portrayal of everyday life, assuming that your life is that of the nobility.
The TV series, of course, boosted the popularity of the novel to an audience by at least an order of magnitude. Sales of the books themselves roughly quadrupled after the series was released, and the number of TV viewers is more than double that again. Add in rentals and DVD buyers, and you’ve got quite an audience. Certainly the words “the next Game of Thrones” within a pitch would ring nicely in the ears of studio executives.
My first impressions of the TV series were very good. Just based on a cold watching without revisiting the source material first, here seemed to be an extremely high-fidelity adaptation of the script relative to the book. I must say, though, going back and re-reading the book after watching the series was a bit surprising. It became very clear where the cuts were made for the video treatment. But even this left me with a positive impression. Quite a few of the cuts were focused on downsizing the scale to make the story doable on TV. For example,scenes that should have dozens of guards facing off would have a dozen or so total. Notably, Tyrion was knocked out early on in his first battle, avoiding the difficulty of portraying a massive battle scene on screen. I also thought the casting was dead-on, with one complaint. Everyone in the TV show is just too damn old.
The success of the series would seem to expose an appetite for fantasy, particularly in the adult markets. But the hunt for similar material also can exploit the historical themes to which A Song of Fire and Ice alludes. The story is clearly inspired by history, with the kingdoms of Westeros and beyond having historic counterparts, both obvious and not so. Any effort to map, one-to-one, the events of the stories to, say, the War of the Roses will surely fail as author Martin tends to mix and match and make up as needed. Nonetheless, similarities between Game of Thrones and the actual succession of Henry VIII are going to help sell a series dramatizing the latter.
Getting back to the subject of this particular article, the connection between Medici: Masters of Florence and A Game of Thrones is aided by the selection of Robb Stark to be Cosimo de’ Medici (although, watching, I didn’t pick up the connection – I had to look up the actor afterwards). In stark (heh heh) contrast to the casting in Game of Thrones, the actor playing the lead role is more than 10 years younger than the character he plays. Of course, part of the issue here is the story is told through a series of flashbacks, and Madden (that’s Robb’s real name – who knew?) must be, on the same viewing night, both a dozen years older as well as some 8-10 years younger than his real age.
The series’ story starts with the death of patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici, and we follow forward with his sons’ reactions and struggles after their father’s death.
Oddly enough, the actor playing Cosimo’s brother looks considerably older than Madden. So much so, I was confused through the first several episodes – wondering why father Giovanni seemed to be grooming his younger son to take over the family business. As I write this, actor Stuart Martin (a Red Shirt from Game of Thrones – he played a nameless Lanister soldier) does not have his birth date recorded on line, so I can’t really comment on the relative actors’ ages.
Anyway, as the son’s struggle with their father’s death which, in a bit of highly speculative fiction, is something of a murder mystery, the groundwork is laid showing formative events between a young Cosimo at the time when his father was actively building the family’s wealth. A bit of gray-colored hair and a dose of gravitas are there to remind us that the actors have aged 20 years from one scene to the next.
To make matters even more difficult, both the 59 year old Giovanni and the 79 year old Giovanni are played by the same 80 year old Dustin Hoffman, and no amount of makeup can really help him bridge the gap to the former. Hoffman doesn’t really even try. Basically, if he is alive and talking, he must be closer to 60 than he is to 80.
While I’m on a roll, I’ll also say that I failed to recognize actor Anthony Howell (playing condottieri Francesco Sforza) whom I watched in the supporting role throughout the series Foyle’s War. I also failed to make the connection that Cosimo’s father-in-law was portrayed by GoT‘s Walter Frey. These oversights are considerably more understandable than missing Robb Stark/Cosimo, who on screen are essentially the same character.
The brooding young son has the weight of the world thrust upon his shoulders when his father dies, leaving him the keys to the kingdom. Despite all the brooding, he seems to make a success of himself in his new leadership role, although whatever greatness he displays is largely done off-screen. On screen he broods. Until he meets a woman who, while able to lift his spirits somewhat, can never fit into the grand scheme of things as King of the North(ern Italy’s Banking Empire). So, while he broods for a little less, he still must brood.
Then everyone dies.
OK. So it is not really that bad. In fact, my suspicion is that it is the popularity of The Borgias that was the immediate inspiration for this series. Take the same time period. Put a towering icon of the big screen in as the patriarch and fill in the family with younger, non-American actors. Success.
Medici doesn’t have quite the ambition of The Borgias, and therefore a few of the things I really enjoyed about the latter, I’m not going to find in the former. The lavish weddings, the (relatively) large scale battles; these things fit less into a tale of bankers than they do of popes and kings. I note that, even in The Borgias, the scenes where deals are negotiated with Florence aren’t particularly lavish. Of course, a big part of it is likely due the big difference in production costs between the two shows.
Beyond that, Medici, seems to go considerably further afield when it comes to creating fictional narrative to fill in the blanks of what is sometimes a rather sparse historical narrative. This is not, by any means, an analysis. It’s more of an impression. Neither show is meant to be a documentary, and both take opportunities to spice up the series for their viewing audiences. The Borgias just give me the impression that the spirit of the historical tale is adhered to more than Medici.
In the end, Medici is decently* entertaining as a television series. However, they seem to have left much potential on the table. Cosimo de’ Medici, assuming you do subscribe to this interpretation, reshaped the history of the world. While much of that influence was based upon his ability to spend money, whether on political influence or great works, there should be a more interesting side of the story when portraying the actual people. The ability to spend money depends on the ability to make even more money, and the scale to which Cosimo was able to profit from European trade suggests a man of great charisma, intelligence, and capabilities. In Medici‘s portrayals, we see virtually none of this, either from Madden’s Cosimo or Hoffman’s Giovanni. The occasional political intrigue aside, the wealth just seems to roll in on its own. The series can stand without it, but I think it missed an opportunity to put real personalities behind the historical figures.
*Like The Borgias, Medici seems to be spicing up the show with some gratuitous rock-n-roll per the HBO formula. Granted the sexual politics are part of the story – the arranged marriage of Cosimo and his illegitimate son from his relationship with a slave. But once again, the show goes beyond mere speculation into fantasy. Cosimo’s younger brother Lorenzo is portrayed as a perpetual bachelor, with titillating affairs spicing up the narrative and lending a little on-screen nooky. And yet, this is the Lorenzo who was married somewhere in the flashback portion of the show, inspiring the treatise on the importance of marriage to the health of the nation, De Re Uxoria.