A dazzling history of the modest family that rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, The Medici is a remarkably modern story of power, money, and ambition.
Against the background of an age that saw the rebirth of ancient and classical learning, Paul Strathern explores the intensely dramatic rise and fall of the Medici family in Florence as well as the Italian Renaissance, which they did so much to sponsor and encourage. Interwoven into the narrative are the lives of many of the great Renaissance artists with whom the Medici had dealings, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Donatello as well as scientists like Galileo and Pico della Mirandola.
In his enthralling study, Strathern also follows the fortunes of those members of the Medici family who achieved success away from Florence, including the two Medici popes and Catherine de' Medici, who became queen of France and played a major role in that country through three turbulent reigns.
©2016 Paul Strathern (P)2016 Tantor
"A fantastically comprehensive history covering the breadth of the great learning, art, politics, and religion of the period." (Kirkus)
The Medici are used in this book as an intriguing lens into Renaissance life and norms. Not only are the characteristics and personalities of the Medici family and their many relationships made the forefront of this book, but we also learn a great deal about the cultural origins Renaissance thought - and therefore in many ways of our own. The author seems generally fair, neither painting the Medici as total saints or total sinners (though he perhaps leans toward the latter viewpoint), although some of his personal feelings about the relative value of science and religion regularly seep into the book. Overall, I feel that I'm much better acquainted with Renaissance Europe because of this book, and the fact that it was an enjoyable and interesting read full of drama and intrigue makes it accessible outside of more academic circles - though it might be difficult to keep up with some elements of the book without a decent acquaintance with European history and geography.
In a continuous braid of sharply etched characters and well-lit scenes, this book knit together all sort of pieces of things, from many disciplines, I knew something about, and made great sense of it all. The Renaissance was a sort of funnel through which the ancient and medieval worlds flowed toward ours. Its figures at last make a coherent sense to me, and link clearly to our world today, and the ancient and medieval worlds that came before. I have long been into art history, but here it all linked (as I never perceived it before) to the currents of thought and history and personality in which it happened. The movement between ideas and people in this telling is graceful and seamless. The Medici provide a central prism through which all this can be viewed and appraised, and in an entertaining fashion.
The most shocking elements of this tale for me were in the brutality, venality, and rife sin to be found in popes in this period, Medicis and others. But unexpectedly, with help from Machiavelli (so well explained here), I came to see a sort of sense in many of these lurid acts. This duplicity punctuated with ruthless violence, does make a sort of sense -- as a necessity of survival in the jaw-droppingly competitive crucible of the times. I'd rather watch from afar, though! I will, in any event, never look at the history of the Church of Rome and Christ's Vicar on Earth (as the story goes) quite the same way. There are characters noble and depraved in spirit, here, and some as squalid as one will ever encounter. This is a tremendous canvas that takes in a huge swath of Europe's history, culturally, militarily, and in art and thought. We meet, in ideas and often in personality, everyone from Aristotle to Da Vinci to Savonarola to Martin Luther to Galileo to countless bit part figures illuminating life in these times. The story moves on every level one might be curious about. It is time well spent.
This author has little to no basis in the actual history of the period. While the overall story may be *mostly* accurate he has little understanding of the surrounding times. As an example, he makes repeated references to the vast difference between the ignorant, religious Medieval period and the enlightened Renaissance. The view of the ignorant and backward Middle Ages has been out of favor for a long time. To the extent it is true, it stopped being true in the 13th century, a time of great scholarship and learning. That's not to say there were no great rediscoveries and achievements in the Italian Renaissance there obviously was. But there is no need to hang onto outdated and discredited dichotomies.
Holding onto outdated concepts is the norm. He states what a monster and brute Pope Alexander VI was without giving any reason or cause for thinking that (Alexander VI was subject to a lot of propaganda after his death and separating fact from fiction has been a huge task). He suggests Leo X was poisoned and says King Francis I did it based on absolutely nothing. Casually suggesting poison is common through out.
And some of his comments are just bizarre. He suggest Leonardo DiVinci's homosexuality might be due to the fact that he was doted on by women in his early life. What? I'm not offended just so confused. What out of date Freud knock offs is he reading? That doesn't even make sense. After discussing the homosexuality of some artists he goes onto assure as that one scholar's sexuality was entirely normal (i.e. straight).
Overall, this is a gripping and well told history of the Medici. Its largest issues are in its reliance on apocryphal, since disproven stories and ideas, and its author's clear distaste and antiquated ideas of the many homosexual and bisexual men in his story. When a historian puts forward the theory, in all seriousness, that someone's overbearing mother "made them a homosexual," they lose all credit for me as an academic. Combine this with some inaccuracies and apocrypha mentioned as fact, and I just can't take it seriously. A real shame.
Strathern offers a comprehensive account of the Medici, the political and cultural conditions that made their rise possible, and the effects they had on the Florentine Renaissance. Though it ends a bit abruptly (an epilogue reflecting on the family's greater significance would have been welcome) there's enough here to fill in the gaps for those who study the artists, scientists, or political figures of the era in isolation. In all, a very good book.
Derek Perkins was a wonderful choice as narrator. This is another great performance by a true virtuoso of the medium. I highly recommend.
This book covers about three hundred years of the Medici family, but in the process, you learn a lot about Italy, Europe, and human nature. You also see how good and bad dynastic dictatorships can be as well as how democracy will fail without the full commitment of the population. There are many other lessons to be learned from this book. A population defended by mercenaries is never safe. A population not willing to give their lives to defend their freedoms will be subjugated. There are a lot of lessons about life and government in this book.
This was a very interesting journey through the rise and fall of a powerful and fascinating family dynasty. So many great artists and thinkers from the Renaissance Era were connected to the medici and this book does a great job of giving great summaries of their lives. It's also hard not to compare the Medici family to many of today's family dynasties.
If you have ever wondered about the Italian renaissance, this is a must read. Lots of stories of the Medici through the generations and the brilliant minds and menaces they interacted with.
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