The name de’ Medici is linked inseparably to the history of Florence. For more than three centuries the wealthy banking family played a major role in the political life of the city. They financed the development of the Renaissance and left a cultural heritage of inestimable value to their beloved Florence.
The TV show “Medici: Masters of Florence” is produced by the Italian RAI. It tells the story of the pater familias of the Medici family, Cosimo de’ Medici (also known as the Elder), played by Richard Madden famous for the role of Robb Stark in Game of Thrones. After the death of his father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (Dustin Hoffman) Cosimo takes charge of the Medici bank. He increases his political influence and takes on the other powerful families of Florence.
Despite the millions of viewers in Italy that faithfully watched Medici: Masters of Florence week after week, there was also a lot of criticism. For many, the show was too Hollywoodian and not always historically correct. In film productions, it is standard practice to glam up a historical story to make the plot more romantic, dramatic and exciting. According to Frank Spotnitz, the series creator, they opted for a historical “what if” scenario with a made up murder plot to attract those viewers who otherwise would not be interested in a family saga about the Medici. The search of Cosimo and Lorenzo for the murderer of their father Giovanni is the central theme of the TV show.
Medici: Masters of Florence is a beautiful production with gorgeous sets and costumes, and I enjoyed watching it. It is obviously a fiction and not a documentary, not everything you see in the series did actually happen that way.
For the history buffs who want to know how the story of the Medici family really went down here is an overview of the most important “artistic liberties” or historical mistakes made by the creators of the show.
1. The beautiful Medici men
The actors who play the main characters are all very easy on eyes. But were the Medici men really that good looking? Unfortunately not. Moreover, hereditary diseases like arthritis and gout-plagued the family. They most likely didn’t sport such fashionable beards either, on the old paintings of that time they are all depicted with clean-shaven faces.
2. The death of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici
In the opening scene of the series, we see how the father Giovanni idyllically seated in a vineyard is enjoying the beautiful view of Florence. The grapes that he eats turn out to be poisoned and he dies between the vines. In reality, Giovanni died on February 20, 1429, not the season for outdoor grape eating. Furthermore, he was not murdered, the writers to create a more exciting plot invented that part of the story.
3. The role of Contessina de’ Bardi
Contessina was indeed the wife of Cosimo; she came from a noble but impoverished family. Although it was an arranged marriage and Cosimo and Contessina did not marry out of love, they still had a very good and loving relationship that produced two sons, Piero and Giovanni.
Contessina was a woman of her time, and she undoubtedly kept herself busy with household matters, the education of the children and receiving guests. She didn’t interfere with the banking business or political life of her husband. Therefore it is unthinkable that she would enter a gathering of the Signoria on horseback pleading for the life of Cosimo. History tells us that it was the other Italian states that pressured the Signoria to convert the death sentence of Cosimo in exile.
In the series Contessina breaks the news of a secret marriage to Cosimo allowing him to return to Florence, betraying the confidence of her former sweetheart in the process. In reality, it was Cosimo’s influence and connections that made it possible to overthrow the Albizzi family.
4. Cosimo’s lovers
In Rome, Cosimo falls in love with the beautiful, but poor Bianca and the young lovers lose themselves in a passionate romance until Giovanni puts an end to it. Nothing is known about the love life of Cosimo before he got married, but it is quite possible that as a youngster he had a romantic escapade. We’ll never know.
Maddalena, the slave Cosimo takes back from Venice to Florence, did exist. Together they had a son Carlo de’ Medici. The boy was brought up by Cosimo’s wife Contessina along with his half-brothers. He later became a priest and devoted his life to the church. Maddalena’s further fate is unknown.
5. Cosimo poisoned in prison
Because he was afraid of being poisoned, Cosimo refused the food that was brought to him during his imprisonment in the Tower of Palazzo Vecchio. He bribed the jailer so he could receive meals from home.
6. Lorenzo de’ Medici’s marriage and death
Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known as the Elder), was the younger brother of Cosimo. In the series, he is a womanizer who loses his heart to Rosa and ultimately never marries. In reality, Rosa never existed. Lorenzo married in 1416 at the age of 21 with Ginevra di Giovanni di Amerigo dei Cavalcanti. The couple had two sons. Lorenzo’s great-grandson Cosimo I de’ Medici would later become the first Grand Duke of Florence in 1569.
As their father Giovanni was never murdered, Cosimo never accused his brother Lorenzo of being involved in his death. Furthermore, an accomplice of the Pazzi family didn’t kill Lorenzo. He died in 1440 at the age of 45 in the family villa Careggi in Florence; the cause of death is unknown.
7. The death of Rinaldo degli Albizzi
Cosimo’s big rival and his son come to a violent end in a Tuscan forest after he was exiled from Florence. Rinaldo was indeed banished from the city and would never return to Florence. After eight years of exile, he died in 1442 at the age of 72 in Ancona.
8. The facade of the Duomo
Various scenes were filmed around the Duomo, and Baptistery of Florence and the buildings form an impressive backdrop to the story. What many people do not know is that the front of the Duomo was still bare in the 15th century. The beautiful facade of the famous cathedral of Florence as we know it today wouldn’t be built until 1887.
9. The dome of the San Lorenzo church
The parish church of the family, San Lorenzo, was indeed bare in the 15th century, as seen clearly in the TV series. Michelangelo was commissioned to create a fitting façade for the church, but he never finished the work.
What the church did not have in Cosimo’s time, but what can be seen in for example the opening scene with Giovanni in the vineyard, is the Cappella dei Principi, with its big red dome. The chapel was built in 1604. The protagonists of the second season of the series are buried here, Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano.
10. The Ponte Vecchio and Vasari Corridor
The famous Ponte Vecchio is shown a couple of times in various scenes, but if you have seen the real bridge, you will notice instantly that something is not right. The real Ponte Vecchio has only three arches and not four as seen on TV.
In the last image shown at the beginning of each episode during the theme song, the Duomo is depicted without a dome. The Ponte Vecchio however (now with three arches) already has the Vasari corridor. This corridor connects measuring almost a kilometer connects Palazzo Vecchio with Pitti Palace on the south bank of the Arno and passes on top of the Ponte Vecchio. The Vasari Corridor was built in 1565 by architect Giorgio Vasari and was commissioned by another Cosimo: Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici.