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Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance 4x55

An EMPIRES Special

From a small Italian community in 15th Century Florence, the Medici family would rise to become one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe.  Using charm, patronage, skill, duplicity and ruthlessness, they would amass unparalleled wealth and unprecedented power.  They would use this power to help ignite the most important cultural and artistic revolution in Western history – the Renaissance.  DaVinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Galileo – all received Medici patronage.  But the forces of change the Medici helped unleash would one day topple their ordered world.  An epic drama played out in courts, cathedrals and palaces, The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance is both the tale of one family’s powerful ambition, and of Europe’s tortured struggle to emerge from the Dark Ages.

After centuries in which the Catholic Church has controlled thought and ideas, one city at the heart of fifteenth century Europe is poised on the threshold of an intellectual and artistic revolution.  Cosimo de’ Medici and his father have established the world’s largest banking business, whose ‘clients’ include popes and princes.  Outwitting his political rivals and establishing his family at the heart of Republican Florence, Cosimo uses his phenomenal wealth to scour the continent for relics of antiquity, breathing new life into the study of the ancient past.  As Cosimo’s power grows, his friend Brunelleschi builds a great dome over the cathedral of Florence.   It will become the greatest achievement in western architecture since ancient times.  Donatello and Lippi create original works for the Medici family, and a religious festival is held in Florence, sparking a new explosion of classical learning and inventive thinking.  Florence flourishes as a new Rome.  When Cosimo dies, the Florentine republic declares him “Father of the Nation”.

Withstanding attacks from bitter enemies, including the Pope, Cosimo’s young grandson Lorenzo becomes a driving force of the Renaissance.  When his beloved brother is assassinated, his supporters take instant revenge on those that stand against the Medici family.  With his power reinforced, Lorenzo delivers in full the creative revolution conceived by his grandfather.  Some of the greatest artistic genius the world has ever known flourishes under Lorenzo:  Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and more – and Florence is hailed as the cultural capital of the world.  But a vicious backlash emerges.  A young monk named Savonarola rails publicly against the decadence and sinfulness of the city.  When Lorenzo dies in 1492, his family is driven from the city and Savonarola leads Florence in a fury of fundamentalist purification.  Jewellery, wigs, fancy clothes and many great works of art are destroyed in the now infamous ‘bonfire of the vanities’.

By 1512 Giovanni de’ Medici — although exiled from Florence — has become the most senior cardinal at the Vatican. With the power of the Papacy behind him, he returns to the city, seizing it with brutal force. When the Pope dies in 1513, Medici money ensures the quick accession of Giovanni to the Papacy.  Taking the name Pope Leo X, he embarks on a frenzy of overspending, depleting papal funds.  To raise money, he sells Indulgences — papal forgiveness for sin — on an unprecedented scale.  When a German monk named Martin Luther protests, it sparks a revolutionary fire that quickly spreads across Europe.  After Leo’s death, his cousin Giulio becomes Pope Clement VII.  The second Medici Pope, he continues the family tradition of patronage, commissioning Michelangelo to build magnificent tombs for the Medici family.  But his political machinations backfire, and Charles V declares war on Rome.  In  1527, Rome is sacked.  Though seemingly defeated, the Medici family will soon expand their power.  In 1533, Catherine de’ Medici marries the son of the King of France.  As Queen, she will reign supreme in France.

After years of chaos, another Cosimo de’ Medici, a distant country relative of the original Medici line, is named Duke of Florence by the city’s council.  But this Cosimo quickly abolishes the old systems of government, taking direct control of the city.  To house his new administration, he commissions Giorgio Vasari to design the now famous Uffizi – offices for the Medici family.  Vasari also writes a book, Lives of the Artists.  It is the first attempt to crystallize the idea of the Renaissance – and extol the genius of the artists at its heart.  After Cosimo’s death, a young scientist, Galileo Galilei, becomes private tutor to several generations of Medici sons.  Supported by the family, Galileo pursues his scientific studies, improving upon the new invention of the telescope and helping to bring about the birth of modern astronomy.  But his findings challenge Catholic doctrine, and he is summoned to appear before the Inquisition in Rome.  Under pressure, the Medici withdraw their support for Galileo and he retracts his teachings.  Unwilling to challenge the power of the Church, the Medici turn from the cultural revolution they helped create and become staunch defenders of the status quo.  However, the flame of liberty that the Medici helped ignite will continue to burn, changing the world forever.