This post contains SPOILERS for the entire first season of Medici: Masters of Florence.
Originally posted on my old blog on August 18, 2017.
One of Medici: Master of Florence's finest pleasures is the relationship between Cosimo de Medici and Contessina de Bardi. An arranged marriage, Cosimo and Contessina began as strangers. They were two people who lived their lives according to their duties and eventually, after many years together, respect and genuine affection grew out of their heretofore cold partnership. Through eight episodes, it was notable how the state of their relationship was often illustrated by close ups of their hands, touching or pulling away. Here, we revisit the many times that Cosimo and Contessina's hands found each other's, and trace the story of this husband and wife who, in their own ways, tried to do right by each other, even as they hurt, and healed, one another too.
The marriage between Cosimo and Contessina was a business transaction between their fathers. Cosimo's father Giovanni wanted his son and heir to marry a noblewoman to enhance the Medici's standing in society. Though enormously wealthy, Giovanni de Medici was still viewed by the nobility as a wool merchant and usurer; there were packets of society that were closed to him because of his humble origins. Cosimo deeply resented the marriage, for prior to meeting Contessina, he had fallen in love with a laundress and artist's model, Bianca. Meanwhile, Contessina's family had fallen on hard times. Her father Alessandro all but sold her to the Medicis in exchange for much needed gold. Contessina, too, was against the marriage, for she viewed the Medicis as profoundly inferior to her socially. She was also in love with another nobleman, Ezio Contarini.
It was amidst this backdrop of resentment, cold contract, and irresistible pull of duty that Cosimo and Contessina grew, if not to love, but to appreciate and respect each other.
Episode One: Cosimo Becomes King
"There's always been a distance between us, Cosimo. But I have been a good and loyal wife these many years. And now you bear a heavy burden. The weight of this family, this bank, this republic. It would be enough to break another man. If you would allow me, I could help to lessen it."
After Giovanni de Medici died of poisoning, Cosimo de Medici became the de facto head not just of the Medici Bank but of the family and a significant part of the Florentine society. In those early troubled days, Cosimo would often disappear for hours without telling his wife where he had gone. When Contessina tried to reach out to her husband, it was to offer her assistance. As a young woman, Contessina was known for her sharp mind and equally sharp tongue. Following her marriage, she played the part of a loyal and dutiful wife, but clearly she had much more to contribute than running a large and complex household.
As Contessina spoke, Cosimo barely looked at her. Instead, he continued to wordlessly unlace his boots. We the audience know that, at this time, Cosimo's mind was weighed with the question of who murdered Giovanni. Contessina did not know this, however. All she could see was her cold husband remaining cold to her even as she offered to shift some of his burden to her, to be his true partner. Contessina reached out to hold Cosimo's hand; Cosimo reached back out, but only to pull his hand away.
Cosimo looked as though he was going to say something after pulling his hand away. However, a visibly hurt Contessina had already hurriedly left the room. It was an opportunity for husband and wife to come together at a difficult time. They had not gotten used to speaking to each other, however, or even looking at each other, and the distance between them continued unbridged.
Episode Two: The Wedding
"From the moment we are married, you will be a Medici. You will not act as an agent for your father's bank, telling him our family's secrets. You will be my wife, and you will be loyal to me, and only to me."
Alessandro Bardi had a secondary reason for marrying off his daughter to the Medicis, apart from the enormous dowry Giovanni was willing to pay. Alessandro wanted Contessina to act as his eyes and ears. Cosimo appeared to have suspected this from the beginning, for on his first meeting with Contessina, he laid down the law. From the time of their marriage, she would be a Medici. Her loyalty would no longer be to her father, but to him, as her husband.
Richard Madden and Annabel Scholey are two phenomenally attractive actors whose chemistry was immediate. It was part of the exquisite torture of watching Cosimo and Contessina on screen; you just want them to be together, happily, but for most of their lives, they were not. They held hands on their wedding, but there was such distance between them. There appeared to have been effort on Contessina's part to form a bond with Cosimo. Whether it was romantic (an immediate attraction on her part) or practical (they were going to be married, they might as well try to like each other), it was not clear. Contessina tried to engage Cosimo in conversation during their wedding feast. Contessina reached out to Cosimo after he coldly consummated their marriage. Cosimo, however, appeared determined to dislike Contessina. It was a determination that would last even after Cosimo took over the reigns of the family business and had to shoulder responsibilities that began with finding out who murdered his father.
Episode Three: The Plague
"I will not let him or Ugo bypass you again. I promise. I value you. And you know that. Without you, I..."
Plague did not spare the Medicis. Cosimo's mother Piccarda Bueri perished, and Lucrezia lost her unborn child, though the Medicis retreated from Florence and into one of their lavish estates. Whilst the Medicis were away, Albizzi convinced the people to turn against Cosimo.
As a way to give people jobs, Cosimo funded the building of a dome atop an unfinished cathedral. Albizzi told the people that the dome was funded with usury, and the plague was God's punishment. If the dome were torn down, Albizzi claimed, the plague would leave Florence. Cosimo knew he could not stay away whilst Albizzi tore down not just the dome but the Medici family name. Cosimo returned to a Florence that was still hard hit by the plague and, displaying his usual cunning, managed to defeat Albizzi and save the dome.
There was much warmth when Cosimo and Contessina were reunited when Florence was finally free of plague. Cosimo held Contessina's hand as he helped her out of the carriage, then passionately kissed her. By this time, at least, Cosimo could already show affection to the wife who has been by his side for many years.
Cosimo was furious with his brother Lorenzo and advisor Ugo when he learnt that, against Contessina's wishes, they sold off the Medici mills to the Pazzi in an effort to quickly raise much needed coin. Medici wealth began with those mills; to sell them off was to make their financial problems public. Alone with his wife and with visible difficulty in expressing sentiment he has long kept to himself, Cosimo finally told Contessina that he valued her.
Episode Six: Cosimo as Michael Corleone
"Lord Almighty, bless our generous benefactor, Cosimo de Medici. A man who chose the hard and narrow path."
In a sequence of scenes that strongly reminded me of The Godfather, Albizzi and his son were killed by mercenaries at Cosimo's orders, whilst the Pope blessed the cathedral that Cosimo was funding to finish. Cosimo was a man who, deep within, was convinced he was a decent person trying to do good in the world. His faith in God was as genuine as his belief that killing Albizzi and his son was justice, for what he believed was Albizzi's part in the murder of Giovanni. Still, the words of the Pope during the blessing appeared to have jarred Cosimo's uneasy conscience. In this hour of uncertainty, of fear, it was Contessina's hand he sought.
That Cosimo wanted comfort from Contessina at this stage was even more notable given that relations between husband and wife were so recently quite strained. Cosimo was furious at Contessina for arranging his exile in an effort to save his life. Cosimo, who had an affair with a slave whilst in exile, and who later brought said slave back home in Florence, was also angry that Contessina dared flirt with her old suitor Ezio. After Cosimo and Contessina finally hurled their hurt at each other, and had angry sex, Cosimo locked his door to his mistress.
Episode Eight: Lorenzo
"A man always has a choice, if he is willing to lose."
Cosimo and Contessina's hands found each other again when they heard news that Lorenzo had been killed. Contessina had just told Cosimo she thought of leaving him just that morning. The moment adversary struck the Medicis, however, husband and wife quickly put their differences aside and came together.
Later, when the Medicis have prevailed, Contessina told Cosimo he ought to raise his child by the slave Maddalena as his own, and that she would help. For Contessina, it was a way to atone for their sins. Cosimo, burdened as he was by his conscience, did not think he could ever atone for his sins, but he was overwhelmed by Contessina's offer to help him. He took Contessina's hands to his own, and brought them to his lips.
Cosimo and Contessina's relationship may have begun as a business transaction, but it grew, over the years, into a union of mutual respect and deep affection, perhaps even love. It beautifully anchored this dynastic drama, portrayed as they were by leads of stunning chemistry, Richard Madden and Annabel Scholey. As we now look forward to Medici: Masters of Florence's second season, we can only hope for an equally strong sophomore outing.