Frank Spotnitz isn’t a fan of historical drama, but it’s rapidly becoming a fan of his. The first season of Netflix’s Medici, subtitled Masters Of Florence, went gangbusters in its native Italy. Season two was so popular that it’s now impossible for its lead Daniel Sharman to walk uninterrupted through the streets of, or pay for a meal in Florence, where the show is filmed. (The Italian crowds part for him, purring calls of “Lorrrrrenzo”.)
Lorenzo il Magnifico, or the Magnificent, was the grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici – banker, pivotal figure in Renaissance history, and the focus of season one. Set twenty years later, Medici: The Magnificent is the story of the next generation and the blood-soaked rivalry between the Medici and the Pazzi family.
It’s a conspiracy thriller, explains Spotnitz, “one of the greatest true life conspiracy thrillers of all time.” If you want to ruin this season for yourself, he says, “go on Wikipedia right now and look it up.”
If you were to do just that, your stomach might be turned by what you read. Put simply, 15th century Italians did not mess about when it came to exacting bloody revenge. The actual story, Spotnitz tells Den Of Geek, was too hot for TV. “If you read the real history of what happened to these people, it’s too graphic I think even for television for now to show.” What you’ll see on screen is “not as gruesome as it was in history.”
The rest of season two, Spotnitz assures, hews far closer to history than its predecessor. Timelines have been compressed to squeeze the action into eight episodes, but far fewer liberties were taken with history this time around. The reason being? “The actual history is so dramatic.”
Medici: The Magnificent, produced by Italy’s Lux Vide, is the story of a great rivalry. In the blue corner, young idealist Lorenzo de’ Medici, a banker with a keen sense of social responsibility and one of history’s most influential patrons of the arts (without him and his family, there wouldn’t be Botticelli paintings hanging in the Uffizi today). In the red corner, Jacopo Pazzi, a ruthless and predatory money man with no sense of the value of art. It’s youth vs age, revolution vs establishment, art vs empty materialism.
It’s all of that versus… Sean Bean. After Dustin Hoffman provided the star power in season one, Bean is the casting coup this time around. He plays Jacopo, the antagonist head of the Pazzi family, “he’s the villain but you do have a sympathy for him,” says Spotnitz. In real life, Bean is “very lovely, quiet,” says Spotnitz. “It’s almost a whisper when he speaks to you.” Completely the reverse of his belligerent, scheming character, whose tunnel-vision materialism, Bean told Spotnitz, makes him woeful.
“Dreams matter, stories matter. This is what gives life its richness,” stresses Spotnitz. “For people like the Jacopo Pazzis of the world, it doesn’t. They don’t see the value. Sean talked about this, he finds that tragic. He finds that character tragic because he’s not moved by stories. He’s not moved by art, it’s money and power. That’s a very mean existence. It’s an empty life.”
The first thing that happened when Bean’s role was announced online, Spotnitz laughs, was “Will he die?” After several high-profile early exits in film and TV roles, the longevity of any Sean Bean character has become a talking point among fans. Bean appears in all eight episodes of Medici: The Magnificent, assures Spotnitz. Beyond that, you’ll have to consult Wikipedia.
Not that viewers should have to, Spotnitz tells us. You don’t need to know a thing about Renaissance history to get the most from Medici. He and co-creator Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) started from the position that nobody would have inherent interest in the period or the historical figures. “You need to know absolutely nothing,” he assures us. “I’m not assuming anybody cares about the Medici the bankers, they’ve been dead for 500 years.”
What viewers will care about, hopefully, are the personal stories. “A son who’s got to take over from his father, or who is in love with a woman but has to marry somebody else because his family demands it.”
There’s also the modern-day resonance of the Medici story, he says. And in that, the former X-Files and The Man In The High Castle producer sees historical drama as closer to his sci-fi work than might be assumed.
“Doing historical drama is not that different from science-fiction. When you do an X-Files episode, you’ve got to know why you’re telling that story, why are you inventing a monster or alien? What does it mean? It’s going to be silly unless it means something, and the same is true of historical drama. Why are you telling this story? Why follow this character? What’s it about?”
To Spotnitz, Medici: The Magnificent is about people he reads about every day in the newspapers. “Younger people, well-educated, idealistic…” A generation that has entered an adult world that is currently a scary, turbulent mess. “And I feel it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he warns. These young Lorenzos, as he styles them, are trying to figure out the path forward and make the world a better place. Living by your ideals though, as Lorenzo struggles to do this season, is hard. “I believe the world doesn’t reward you for that. The world punishes you for that.” We don’t do it because it’s easy or the way to win, he concludes, “we do it because it’s the right thing.”
All eight episodes of Medici: The Magnificent arrive on Netflix on Friday the 25th of January.