Parable of our Times: Netflix’s Medici, Season 3

Back in 2019, I began a grand watch-through of all the period pieces I could find on Netflix. I didn’t get very far before COVID hit and the drive left me, but I did get through a large chunk of the Renaissance before stopping in the middle of the third season Medici: The Magnificent, for which I had the pleasure of reviewing the first two seasons already here on Concerning History. I am pleased to say my motivation has finally returned to me, and it could not have happened at a better time.I was frankly a bit underwhelmed by the first two seasons of Medici. They were fine, and gorgeously set, but the stories seemed pedestrian, no more than another early modern soap opera in a genre that seems all the rage (I like to call it “doublets and doublecrosses”). It’s third season, however, felt much more intimate and relevant to the world of 2021, and while it ultimately got sucked down into its own moral quagmires, I cannot but applaud its efforts.

While the second season of Medici dealt with the rise of Lorenzo de Medici, “The Magnificent,” its third and final season deals with Lorenzo in his full power as virtually unchallenged ruler of Florence. Girolamo Riari remains the final member of the conspiracy that murdered Lorenzo’s brother and failed to muder Lorenzo himself at large, and it is the vendetta between these two men that drives the front half of the season as Lorenzo becomes more and more ruthless in his direction of Florentine affairs and his prosecution of his war with Riario. As the season, and show, draws to a close, however, the narrative shifts to Lorenzo’s struggles with his legacy and the looming specter of a new popular power in Florence, that of Girolamo Savonarola, a charismatic Dominican preacher who, though once a friend of Lorenzo’s, will ultimately strive to undo all The Magnificent has built in Florence.

Years on from my initial Renaissance reviews, I’ve now brushed up more on my fifteenth century history and can comment more thoroughly on the accuracy of this third season. It’s…not great. Events take place years after or before they really did, in different locations than they really did, and no family in the show has an accurate number of children (the most egregious offender being Caterina Sforza Riario, in the show pregnant with her first child at the time of her husband’s death when in reality she should have already had five). For the most part, though, I can forgive these inaccuracies. Medici has a story to tell, and history rarely lends itself to neat 8-episode narratives; the writers can be forgiven for moving up Savonarola’s people’s republic a few years to complete his storyline within the scope of the season. Even the decision to cut out Cardinals Rodrigo Borgia and Giuliano della Rovere from certain key events in Rome makes a certain amount of sense; this is the Medici’s show, after all, and the Borgias always like to hog the limelight.

What truly fascinated me about Medici Season 3, both historically and presently, was its decision to interrogate the morality of politics in Renaissance Florence. In portraying Lorenzo’s fall from the idealistic young man of Season 2, Medici offers a decidedly Machiavellian pavement of the road to Hell with good intentions (and not just because Machiavelli himself is a recurring minor character). In each decision, Lorenzo makes what seems to be the only decision available to him to win, and yet these decisions ultimately lead him to steal from the city treasury, bribe a papal election, allow a massacre of innocent civilians, and condone the murder of a close friend, among many other plots and schemes. I am not so naive as to think the Italian princes of the fifteenth century were models of Christian morality, however, and generally believe that Machiavelli’s The Prince was closer to describing morality than Erasmus’ angry rebuttal. Thus when Lorenzo’s family begin to question and then condemn his methods, I was skeptical of the historicity; the arranged marriage of Lorenzo’s young daughter, in particular, should have been so commonplace that his wife Clarice’s impassioned condemnation comes across as pure insertion of a modern voice.

In what may come as a surprise, though, I don’t necessarily think the modern voice should be unwelcome in period pieces. On the contrary, without at least some modern sensibilities, audiences can be led all too easily to romanticize historical figures who by present standards were immoral despots. Lorenzo’s most effective modern foil in Medici comes in the form of infamous preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola usually gets a bad reputation from historians for his religious fundamentalism and screeds against luxury that resulted in the destruction of countless works of Renaissance art. Yet of all depictions of Savonarola I’ve seen, Medici is by far the most kind, showing how an earnest and well-meaning man can get caught up in the ego of his own influence. The Dominican prior’s original message, indeed, is one that cuts through the centuries to the present: rather than lavishing their unsurpassed wealth on vanity projects like art, sculpture, and monumental architecture, those with means should support those without. One can almost hear the online cries lambasting Medici alongside Bezos for having the money to solve homeless and yet choosing to fund his own aggrandizement. 

Ultimately Medici tries to have its cake and eat it too, with Lorenzo repenting of his evil deeds on his deathbed while clinging to his pride of the beauty created in Florence through his friends and protegees Boticceli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Yet in Lorenzo’s contented last breath lies a world of paradox, for that beauty would not have existed without those past misdeeds. I can’t say I’ll ever teach or discuss the Renaissance the same again, and while dismissing some of humanities’ most brilliant artistic accomplishments feels like a disservice, so too does uncritical veneration in light of the thousands of unfortunates who went without happiness, liberty, or life as a result. Needless to say, Medici has climbed in my recommendations of early modern shows, even if it does pull its punches; the questions it raises are worthy of some of the best public historians out there.

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