Review of Medici: Masters of Florence – Women of the 15th century or the 21st?
By Emma Fox, Level 2 History Undergraduate
Netflix’s series Medici: Masters of Florence first aired in December 2016 with its first season focusing on the period of Cosimo de’ Medici’s (Richard Madden) ascendance to head of the family bank after the death of his father Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman). The series has been widely criticised for its deviation from historical fact and has been likened to a soap opera. To give an example, in the first episode Giovanni de’ Medici is poisoned, giving rise to a sub-plot throughout the season concerning who his killer was. In truth, his cause of death is unknown and assumed to have been due to natural causes. Another widely criticised aspect of the series is when Cosimo’s wife, Contessina (Annabel Scholey), rides to the Signoria (the government of Florence at the time) clad in chainmail to prevent Cosimo’s death sentence and ask instead for his exile, when in reality it was Cosimo’s own influence that bought him his exile in place of execution.
Contessina’s entire characterisation causes much consternation among scholars of the subject. In an article for The Florentine, academic Christine Contrada writes that ‘Contessina’s powerful proclamation [to daughter-in-law Lucrezia] that “there are more ways for a woman to be indispensable than just bearing children” smacks of the 21st century’. In recent times, there has been a push towards strong female characters in the media and it seems that this is reflected in how the producers have chosen to portray Contessina. She is characterised as outspoken and witty, but there is little within the historical record to suggest this was her true nature. Her representation as brash and outspoken appears to have been an attempt to appeal to a twenty-first century audience who do not wish to see women as submissive and while her ‘purpose’ was not solely to bear heirs for the Medici legacy, women would have seen this is as part of their duty. The actions she takes go far beyond what she would have been able to do as a woman in the fifteenth century – this is a misrepresentation of not only her own personality but of women in the period and the extent of the power they possessed.
Ironically Lucrezia Tornabuoni (Valentina Bellè), the wife of Cosimo’s son Piero de’ Medici (Alessandro Sperduti), is portrayed as quite frivolous, but in many ways had much more influence throughout her life than Contessina. Piero suffered often with ill-health, needing Lucrezia to support him in his ventures. She acted as a political advisor, secured alliances between the Medici and the nobility and even mediated disputes between other families within the city. In her own right, she was a landowner, businesswoman and poet. That these roles have not been properly represented so far in the series is probably more to do with the fact that her and Piero are still very young in the period concerned and so do not yet bear the responsibilities that they will go on to. However, her influence over Piero is sometimes displayed, albeit in a more traditional, nurturing manner – she often reassures him of his abilities and urges him to assert his authority within the Signoria and to stand up to his father. In the next series, an older Lucrezia will be portrayed by Sarah Parish, where we will hopefully see a realistic portrayal of the level of influence she had over her son Lorenzo.
It is perhaps understandable that Contessina’s character has been exaggerated and her actions embellished – the focus of season one is on Cosimo, whose strong character would have overshadowed more realistic and subtle shows of his wife’s influence. However, this does make for a misleading portrayal of her that has clearly been influenced by twenty-first-century values.
The second season of Medici: Masters of Florence is to be set twenty years after the first, focusing on Lorenzo the Magnificent (Daniel Sharman) and his brother Giuliano (Bradley James), the sons of Piero and Lucrezia. It is due to air on Netflix later this year.
Contrada, Christine. ‘What “Masters of Florence” gets wrong’, The Florentine, 6 January 2017 accessed 30 September 2018.
Pernis, Maria Grazia and Adams, Laurie. Lucrezia Tornabuoni De’ Medici and the Medici Family in the Fifteenth Century (Ann Arbor, 2006).
Tomas, Natalie R. The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence (Ashgate, 2003).