(This article has been updated since originally published).
Medici: Masters of Florence showcases the story of a vast pre-Renaissance merchant family, subtly blurring the lines between soap opera and historical epic. Netflix originals are fashionably fashionable in recent times, so the implicit expectation is that Medici would be a great watch. Cosimo de Medici, played by Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) becomes the de-facto family patriarch after his Dustin Hoffman played father Giovanni dies by eating grapes and getting barked at by a dog.
The Casting is a Double Edged Sword
Let’s start with the good casts: Richard Madden plays the role of Cosimo the Elder really well – his oft used stoic expression expresses wisdom and maturity. The real Cosimo looked nothing like he does but I still think they managed to pull off the character, especially owing to the ‘wise and pious’ archetype the character is written in.
I’m sure Cosimo de Medici is kind of what Robb Stark would act like if he got the chance to grow old and settle down in 15th century Florence. Stuart Martin who plays his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici also does a fantastic job juxtaposing Cosimo’s wisdom with his reckless abandon for mercantile dealings. Commendable mentions:
- Guido Caprino as Marco Bello: does a great job of portraying the loyal sellsword who isn’t above exercising a slight bout of murder
- Lex Shrapnel as Rinaldo degli Albizzi: one of the few actors who I really feel gave it their all in portraying their character.
- Brian Cox, who plays Guadagni, a key member of the segnoria: he has a likable face which instantly makes us like his character.
But then it starts falling apart. Dustin Hoffman who plays the original Medici patriarch can’t really be bothered to play his role, it seems. Throughout the series he plays Dustin Hoffman and not Giovanni de Medici – his American accent is the only one you find throughout the series and becomes slightly immersion breaking. Annabel Scholey, the actress who plays Contessina de Bardi, Cosimo’s wife, is too young to play the 50 something age that she’s portrayed as. But that could be down to the makeup, which incidentally doesn’t manage to capture the aesthetic of the era either. I’m not sure 15th century Florentine bankers wore purple eyeshadow. My favourite part of the Medici cast is Walder Frey playing the father in law of Robb Stark.
Beautiful Scenery; Clumsy Costumes
The visuals, both indoors and outdoors, befit the original setting. The scenes shot in Florence try to be historically accurate while maintaining the Renaissance charm that the show does well to portray. Picturesque aerial shots of the hills, castles and cities are peppered throughout the series. The CGI required to show the construction of Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral) that Cosimo funds is good, and the choice of set is crisp and clean. Little details like the large bronze doors and the statue of David in the Medici piazza go a long way.
The makeup problem does get a bit taxing though; aside from the rainbow tinged colours on various women, the progression of age isn’t captured well. Richard Madden looks the same in his 50s as he does in his 20s – the only distinction is a different haircut and a white sliver of hair. Stuart Martin also looks exactly the same. The actor who plays his son Piero is similar in age to his mother who plays the Contessina, and the costumes and makeup don’t hide it well enough.
Terrific Music, Terrible Sound
Starting from the opening theme till the very end, every bit of music, even during the overly dramatic soap opera bits, are enjoyable. Pretty much every score suits the scene and rarely did I hear repeating soundtracks. The ones that did repeat like the main theme were appropriately placed and left me seeking more.
The soundscapes could do with a bit of refining. Anyone listening to Medici with good headphones will hear the actors talk like they’re speaking straight from a mic. The mixing needs to be better. There are some scenes where the lip syncing is off entirely, which in this day and age, is really jarring for an otherwise praiseworthy show.
The Illustrious Medici Art is Referenced
Any show set in 15th Century Florence would take some artistic license in stretching the tightrope of its story. But Medici doesn’t take it too far, and infact is rather subdued when blurring the lines of fiction and history. With the Medicis being the family that sparked the beginning of the Renessaince, the show gives homage to the great artistes of the time. Although Cosimo de Medici did indeed give patronage to the sculptor Donatello and architect Filippo Brunelleschi – mentions of other artists are modestly hinted at but never extended. Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci were born perhaps a generation too late to appear in this season. Season 2, though, is expected to follow the life of Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. So we could definitely expect them to appear there. Estimated release of Medici Season 2 is October 2017.
The Writing Needs Polish
The key problem you would have if you weren’t a fan of obscure things like 15th century Italian architecture, ecclesiastical power struggles, Florentine history or Dustin Hoffman is the writing. There isn’t too much room in a plot based on history, but good writing can always make it focus on the right things. This show doesn’t really do that. In true soap opera fashion, Cosimo’s dilettante problem gets a much bigger arc than the war against the Pope. His internal power struggles aren’t properly captured even though the viewer can always guess what the outcome will be (it’s Robb Stark: he’s always against murder). The antagonists are one dimensional and the depection of rivalries don’t hold weight (for the Albizzi one it’s a very minor incident and the Pazzi situation is entirely haphazard).
I quite enjoyed Season 1 of Medici. Even though a lot of the actors are borrowed, it’s not Game of Thrones; at its heart the writing is a regular drama disguised as an historical fiction. This show would fall into the category of comfort food – not quite good enough to rave about to your friends, but if you were an art or history fan, you’d binge it. The pacing of the show is on point, the scenery striking and diverse, and the concept of having so much complex intrigue almost half a millennium ago is well expressed. Medici is a very different TV show purely because of the era it tries to replicate. The cinematography is lacking, the writing is insipid, but the music, setting and cast make it worth it. Here’s hoping that Season 2 of Medici: Masters of Florence shall continue Lorenzo’s journey and make it magnificent.