Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free first look review here.
Medici: Masters of Florence is something of a lost opportunity. With a wealth of historical material, a solid cast, a decent budget and the scenery of Italy at its disposal, it seems like a safe bet for a glossy mini-series. Yet a confused script, which seems not to know exactly what story it wants to tell, lets it down.
Having said that, it’s not terrible, by any means. After the first couple of episodes, which set up a fictional murder-mystery, it more or less forgets about the hemlock which had killed pater Medici in the opening scenes. It also jacks in the flashbacks, and, to its credit, attempts to tell the story of Cosimo Medici and his rivals, battling it out for power and influence in 15th century Italy – a story that really needs no embellishments.
The plot is episodic, moving from a courtroom presided over by Brian Cox’s Guadagni to scenes of a decadent Venice, with domestic drama shoe-horned into the political machinations. And yet within this framework, the characterisation is weak. Richard Madden portrays a Cosimo who is one moment noble and socialist (a sort of marxist Robin Hood figure, giving wealth and power to the poor, while also seeming to cure the plague), and the next weak and proto-capitalist. Medici, as portrayed here, is not morally pristine, but there is no real suggestion of any internal struggle, as there is with more successful on-screen anti-heroes. His wife, Contessina (Annabel Scholey), is at times devotedly in love, at others pragmatically sticking by her man for more suspect reasons. Their son, Piero (Alessandro Sperduti), and his wife, Lucrezia (Valentina Bellè), meanwhile, are being groomed for power and leadership – this proves to be a portrait of a young marriage under the weight of expectation, and their relationship is nicely observed.
Frances Barber’s rather vicious and unpleasant mother character leaves the series early, and there is a cursory nod to her nuanced feelings towards her son, whom, it turns out she blamed for his twin brother’s death in childhood. Her swift death-bed forgiveness for a grudge she has held for a lifetime, with no emotional punch due to the lack of foreshadowing and the general cliched nature of the scenes, is indicative of a wider problem.
Cosimo’s main rival to political power in Florence, Rinaldo Albizzi, is played perhaps too well by Lex Shrapnel – neither a villain nor a hero, his fate is a cruel one, even as he tries to frame Cosimo for the sins of his man-servant, the ruthlessly loyal Marco Bello (Guido Caprino). While Marco, meanwhile, for much of the series, blames Cosimo’s brother Lorenzo (Stuart Martin) for their father’s murder, the viewer is given no guidance as to whether he is mistaken or not. We’re left not knowing who – if anyone – to root for.
The disjointed nature of the plot becomes increasingly evident as, in the final episode, we return to the killing of Giovanni, long forgotten by most, and the revelation of the identity of his murderer. Our lingering suspicion is confirmed that Medici: Masters of Florence is a programme that really has no idea what it wants to be, so it throws a little of everything into the plot and hopes that all the ingredients will come together to create a delicious dish. Sadly, it turns out to be more of a dog’s dinner.
Medici: Masters of Florence is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.