Review: The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance

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In 2017, a close friend coaxed me into watching an obscure period drama called Medici: Masters of Florence with her, citing its score and casting (of Richard Madden, to be precise) as reason enough. I begrudgingly agreed, purely out of my infatuation for period dramas, not knowing that it would spark an unhealthy and lengthy obsession with the Medici Family and their influence on epistemology and culture.

At the end of the final season (the last two are called Medici: The Magnificent, for those interested), I found myself seeking out books, essays, and frankly any written accounts of the Medici to fill in the gaps of information created by facts left out for the screen adaptation, because as much as I love a good dramatisation of a time long gone, I also like to bore people at parties with niche knowledge (who doesn’t?).

Having perused several short and poorly referenced books on the topic, I came across Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, and after an in-depth study and 50 page markers, I can finally state with confidence that I’ve found just the right book to learn about this family — the most well-rounded and detailed narration of a convoluted timeline and myriad people.

Strathern begins his chronicles of the Medici with Ardingo de’ Medici, the first in the family to become gonfaloniere (high civic magistrates of medieval Italian city-states) in 1296 and ends with Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who died in 1743, taking the Medici bloodline to the grave with her. In the 500 years in between, lived some of the greatest men who towered as godfathers of all they saw and liked and left a legacy whose impact we still see today, and some horrible men who brought incredible shame and tarnish upon the same legacy.

Apart from lending money, governing the Florentine Republic, and controlling trade across Italy, nearly every Medici generation also funded and inspired various facets of the Renaissance. While at the time they were famous (or infamous, depending on your interpretation of their reign), as a political and economic dynasty, today they are most famously known for their extensive patronage of the Renaissance and commission of works that formed the backbone of the movement.

The Medici had humble beginnings — known to be God-fearing men, they were extremely cautious in their financial dealings, for usury was a sin, and the likes of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici insisted on keeping a low profile at all times. This caution slowly moved to the backburner, when at the height of their greatness, political agenda and a desperate need to hold power in Florence came to the forefront for Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo Il Magnifico. It was at this stage that their patronage of the arts and the sciences flourished, a way to cover up for their growing sin counter, thereby permanently linking themselves to some of the greatest artifacts of the time. By the time the great Medici reputation was run to the ground by less ambitious and honestly, horrific Medicis, usury was no longer the only sin they needed to be worried about.

Strathern peppers the long and twisted timeline with notable figures — the lives and works of artists (Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo), scientists (Da Vinci, Copernicus and Galileo), politicians (Machiavelli) and religious figures (Martin Luther), described in direct relation to the Medici speaks heavily to the longevity of Medici power and its far-reaching influence. This narrative strategy serves as a helpful point of orientation for those newly learning about the Medici.

A little-known fact that Strathern highlights in this sub-plot is the role the Medici played in shaping both Italian as well as French cuisine that we all enjoy; that their understanding of culinary theory — to bring out native flavours of meat and fish, instead of concealing them — changed what was initially a rather rudimentary of cooking and eating.

Strathern’s research for this book and the level of detail he chooses to indulge in ties the messy history together remarkably well; he focuses on the minutia of the lives of the Medici as well as those inextricably bound to the Medici family, bringing out in explicit detail, what it truly meant to be a Medici and also, to be inspired, encouraged and supported by such a family. His prose is simple but strong, which is what makes the difference between Medicis such as Cosimo Pater Patriae & Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Cosimo III & Gian Gastone all the more stark and revolting.

The aspect of the book that I am not a fan of is the lack of in-text citations and references; Strathern’s research is well-done but not evident. He explains in his author’s note in the end that he meant his book to be a popular one and not laden with heavy referencing, but I believe it would have served the book well to provide references. He does provide an extensive reading list in the end, however, and I for one, am quite excited to go through the list.

My brain does not naturally retain too many dates or too many events in chronological order but Strathern makes it easy to remember the overarching themes and then orient dates and times to those themes. The never-ending dates and wars don’t feel overwhelming at all — perhaps the biggest reason why I will recommend this book to those even remotely interested in the history of the Medici and the Renaissance.

Pair this book with Paulo Buonvino’s impeccably composed soundtrack for the Medici Netflix series and you’ll find yourself reveling in the highs and the lows, the grandeur and the austerity of life in Florence in the 15th century, alongside the Masters of the Renaissance. Meanwhile, my next Medici read will be The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King.