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The Sopranos of the Renaissance

Photos courtesy PBS (top) and FOX

Medici, Godfathers of the Renaissance, a splashy four-hour epic about the infamous Florentine banking family that helped spawn Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo, is PBS’s answer to The Sopranos. Not much of an answer, some might say, but worth checking out nonetheless. Airing on two consecutive Wednesdays (PBS, February 11 and 18, 9 p.m.), the program is billed as a “political suspense-thriller” in the form of a historical documentary. On view will be incomparably beautiful paintings, ravishing architecture, historic experiments, and stabbings and burnings-at-the-stake galore. It’s Blood and Guts in Art School.

Medici tells a story that stretches over several centuries — hard to do in four hours, and the strain shows, not least in the viewer trying to keep track of all the Lorenzos, Cosimos and Giovannis. Rather than full-fledged dramatic scenes, the narrative is illustrated with partial re-enactments that rely a great deal on costumes, atmospheric music, slow motion and close-ups, as well as gorgeous shots of Florence, its domed cathedral and the surrounding countryside. (Many of the scenes were actually filmed in smaller Italian towns, the cost of filming in Florence itself having been driven up sharply by Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, shot there the year before.)

Chief voice-over duties fall to Italian narrator Massimo Marinoni. Equipped with a movie-trailer voice, he says things like: “One artist would soar above the others. Eez name was Leonarrrrrrrrdo da Vinci.” There are also talking heads, who flesh out storylines and provide analysis. “Art is really where it’s happening,” says one, referring to the 15th century, but sounding very much like a man who belongs in his own.

The Medicis backed the Renaissance’s open-ended intellectual, artistic and scientific explorations against the religious certitude imposed by the Catholic Church. But by pouring their wealth into the acquisition of culture, we learn, they also turned art into a form of public relations. In 21st century–speak, the Medicis were developing a “brand” as surely as Britain’s Saatchi brothers did with artists like Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman Brothers. Botticelli even placed the Medicis in his Adoration of the Magi, which took sucking up to the boss to a whole new level. Happily, instead of placing penises on faces, as the Chapmans do, Medici-ites like Michelangelo put noses there, and centuries later the art still looks stunning.

The human and historical interest of the period is unbeatable. The great artists were a grubby lot even by later bohemian standards. Michelangelo rarely slept and didn’t take off his shoes for months at a time (when he did, the skin came off with them), while Leonardo gained his anatomical mastery by dissecting the corpses he dug up in local graveyards. As for the Medicis, they prove that there’s no place so nerve-racking as the top. They scheme their way to power, scheme constantly to retain power, and are schemed against (as well as exiled and assassinated) in return. At the start of Episode 3, Florence is on the edge of revolution; at the start of Episode 4, it’s on the brink of anarchy. Historic figures (Savanarola, Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno) come and go with dizzying speed. It’s all a bit much, but as a crash course in the Renaissance, it makes for an entertaining and educational four hours.

 

Simon Cowell is back with a third season of American Idol (Fox), and the co-host of this talent-show phenomenon is amazed that all those dopey, deluded contestants out there still don’t get it: Thinking you’re a talented singer doesn’t make you one. On the other hand, it doesn’t not make you one either, and the discrepancy between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us is what makes this show funny, mean, and occasionally moving. But it’s the terrible singers, as Cowell knows all too well, who make the show. Brought before the panel, a young Asian contestant named Christopher Huang said his ambition was to be the next “Hong Kong superstar.” After his audition, Cowell told him his performance was hideous and that he couldn’t sing a note. “Why not?” asked the stunned superstar-to-be. “I don’t know why not, you just can’t,” Cowell replied with his usual bluntness.

Then 21-year-old Cassi LaBeau, the contestant immediately after Huang, launched into a rendition of “Stormy Weather.” Almost everyone before her had been awful, and the natural expectation was that she would be too. But one line in, Cowell stopped her and said, “You’re through to the next round.” Her talent was so obvious that nothing more needed to be said. Did LaBeau know she had a good voice? Yes, I think she did. But then, so did all those out-of-tune dreamers who were sent back home.