• Annabel Scholey, Richard Madden, Alessandro Sperduti and Valentina Bellè in 'Medici: Masters of Florence'. (Big Light Productions)Source: Big Light Productions
The Italian banking dynasty used its wealth to support religion, politics, and some of the greatest artists celebrated today.
Mark White

20 Apr 2017 - 10:08 AM  UPDATED 23 Oct 2019 - 2:07 PM

If you love gripping historical dramas like Versailles or The Vikings, but wish they had a bit more murder mystery in them, then look no further. Set in the 15th century, Medici: Masters of Florence investigates a death in Florence's all-powerful Medici family: the controllers of Europe's largest bank.

When Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman) dies, his son Cosimo (Richard Madden, Games of Thrones's Robb Stark) knows foul play was involved and sets out to solve the whodunnit. In reality, nobody may have 'dunnit' – history isn't conclusive on whether Giovanni was murdered.

More than just the subjects of another crime drama, what makes the Medici family so compelling is the astonishing legacy they left behind, still shaping the world today.


They invented the middle class

The Medicis knew control over money meant power, and by lending to kings and popes to finance wars and other extravagances, they could ask for favours in return. Before this, there only distinction was between royals and commoners; now, an extra class inserted itself into the economy.

The Medicis ran Florence from 1432 for the next three centuries.


The Renaissance may not have happened without them

Florence became the most beautiful city in Europe under the Medicis, who used untold riches to support the arts. Cosimo is said to have spent 600,000 gold florins during his life as a patron on artistic endeavours – and a gold florin went a lot further in those days than it does now.

The city's famed Uffizi Gallery began life as the Medici Bank's offices. Lorenzo de'Medici was patron to Leonardo da Vinci for seven years and invited a promising 15-year-old sculptor to live in the family palace as a son. You may have heard of him: Michelangelo.


They also helped invent modern banking

The Medicis popularised the use of double-entry bookkeeping and bills of exchange, financial innovations of the time. They also found sneaky ways of charging interest – known as usury, which was a sin according to the Catholic Church – such as making a loan in one currency and have it be repaid in another, letting the exchange rate add a few percentage points of profit.


Modern politics would be nothing without them

Quite a few Medicis operated as “benign dictators" and the people of Florence didn't seem to mind as long as the endless stream of festivals continued – the city was well known for its lavish balls and tournaments. Cosimo acted as uncrowned king for his three decades in power, at one point stacking the Senate with 100 supporters to ensure no nasty outbreaks of democracy.

Official positions used to be drawn by lot - although the choices were fixed beforehand so only loyal supporters could be chosen. Behaviour like this led them to be dubbed the “Godfathers of the Renaissance”.


Funding the library

The Medicis dragged Europe out of the Dark Ages. Cosimo founded the largest library in Italy and filled it with Greek literature – the language had not been studied in Europe for 700 years. Galileo would teach generations of Medici children, and even named Jupiter's largest four moons after four of those pupils, although they've since been renamed.


They inadvertently inspired House of Cards

A young man vied for a job at the Medici court with a singular lack of success – he was tortured and exiled. Desperate to regain the family's good graces, he wrote a book called The Prince about the exercise of wielding power. Its epigrams such as “it is far safer to be feared than loved” have become famous.

His name, Nicolo Machiavelli, lives on, as does his legacy - a politics devoid of morality, devoted to ends regardless of means. 

Watch Dustin Hoffman starring in Medici: The Magnificent. Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming at SBS On Demand

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