Richard Madden has battled in the fields of Westeros on Games of Thrones and searched a fairy tale kingdom for love in Cinderella, but Italy appears to have seduced him while filming Medici: Masters of Florence.
The Scottish actor stars as 15th century banker and art lover Cosimo de’ Medici in “Medici: Masters of Florence,” an international co-production from Italy’s Lux Vide and Frank Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions that debuts Dec. 9 on Netflix.
The eight-episode first season currently is filming in Rome and Florence, using historic sites where many of the actual events occurred, including Palazzo Vecchio, the Basilica di San Lorenzo, and the Duomo.
During a Nov. 14 panel about the series at the ninth annual Roma Fiction Fest, Madden said working in such “amazing locations” with magnificent frescos and other artwork has been so inspiring he’s been seeing the art in his dreams.
“I’d be happy to just keep working in Italy for a while,” he said.
Madden stars with Dustin Hoffman, who portrays Cosimo’s father Giovanni, who started the Medici Bank, which became Europe’s most powerful at the time.
The series focuses on the family’s rise to power and its influence on the Renaissance, but during the Roma Fest panel co-creator/exec producer/writer Spotnitz revealed more about “Medici” than previously released. (See Richard Madden, Dustin Hoffman in “Medici“)
“Medici” won’t be a dry, historical accounting of events, he said. He’s organized the first season around a mystery.
“We begin the show with a ‘what if’ because we don’t know how Giovanni de’ Medici died. One of the questions that haunts Cosimo is whether his father was murdered,” Spotnitz said, adding that the season will be more thriller than historical saga. “This question really drives Cosimo to build the empire that his family’s bank becomes.”
“It has everything,” he said before introducing a world premiere scene from the show. “It has love, murder, intrigue, politics, conspiracy. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful story.”
The production, which has yet to find an American broadcast home, will debut on Italy’s Rai Fiction network in Fall 2016.
Spotnitz and Madden offered more clues about the series and talked about the fascinating history of the Medici family during the panel. Here are some highlights.
What did you know about the Medici before signing on?
Spotnitz: When I started reading about them I was amazed. I knew that they were important to the Renaissance and sponsoring all the art that we now understand as the standard of beauty.
What I didn’t realize is they changed the economics of the world to make it possible for ordinary people to improve their lives. … By lending credit to people who were born poor, for the first time people had the chance to advance socially. It really led to the invention of the Middle Class which we all know and take for granted today.
Obviously that’s not a TV show in itself. For me the key to this season—to the beginning of the Medici story—was the father-son relationship between Richard’s character, Cosimo, and the Dustin Hoffman character, Giovanni. We wanted to find a way for this story to appeal to people who don’t care about the Medici, who don’t care about history, who just want to be really entertained by a great story.
Madden: A lot of [what I know about the Medici] has to do with Frank’s writing; he’s brought these people alive. We don’t have documents about who they actually were. We can see what their deeds were but we don’t know who they really were. Frank’s really delved into this world and brought out some amazing characters, people who were at the forefront of what they were doing. That’s really exciting to play.
What has your experience been so far?
Madden: I had such an amazing time working with Dustin. It’s been so intense; we’ve created every day. And I’m still very much in the middle of it. We’re two months into shooting with three months to go. So there’s a lot to be done.
But it’s the easiest job I’ve ever had to get up a 4 a.m. for because I’m happy every morning to get up and get on set with some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. Every day we strive to make the best and most interesting piece we can and we’re doing it. That’s a thrilling, exciting feeling to have every day.
What fascinated you most about the project?
Madden: There’s a concept that runs through the script that Giovanni teaches Cosimo and its something that really hooked me in. It’s this concept of doing something for the greater good and it not just being about yourself and what you want. Today I think we are very focused on doing things for ourselves and progressing within ourselves.
We look at this amazing family and typically we see bankers and capitalists. Actually they dedicated their lives to doing something much bigger, to creating something lasting hundreds of years, to really forwarding society and the world they were living in, to really bring as much richness in life to everyone in it.
That was really exciting because we don’t think that way as much now. We don’t think [about] 200 years from now, 300 years from now, and they did. That’s a fascinating mind frame to delve into and explore, of being selfless. And from a drama point of view, of what lengths you go to in order to do something bad to achieve something good.
Why have you been in so many period dramas?
Madden: I love being in period dramas. It seems that’s what I’ve stumbled into or what I’ve been drawn to the most. Like with Medici I was just drawn to the scale of these characters, these human beings. I love modern drama, and I love things that are set in the future and sic fi. … There’s something that’s drawn me to the characters I’ve been playing and characters like Cosimo. There’s a lot more in it than the intimacies of modern-day drama. We actually know how to do that. It’s about finding that on this grand scale.
We’ve been filming in these amazing locations looking at these stunning frescos and amazing paintings that are epic in proportion. That’s maybe not something we tap into as much today because we’re on our iPhones or our laptops. For these people to be surrounded by this scale of things and that was their world—we’ve seen these paintings in churches—that was like going to the cinema for these people. I’m living in that world every day. I’ve starting dreaming in that world; I see these paintings at nighttime. …
[My doing period dramas] has not been deliberate. It’s just been really interesting writing and characters that have drawn me to be in lots of furs and period costumes. And I quite enjoy it.
What impressed you about Cosimo?
Spotnitz: Completing the Duomo was one of the central drives of Cosimo’s life. … He’d wanted to be an artist as a young man and when he finally became the head of the bank this was sort of a way to realize those youthful ambitions that had been denied him because he’d become a banker and not an artist.
In [Filippo] Brunelleschi he found a genius who knew how to do it, who had been inspired by the ancient Romans—by the Pantheon in Rome—to build intact two domes, one supporting the other. It’s genius. The flying buttress, the engineering lies within the inner dome to support this massive structure. And of course they had know way of testing it. So while they were building it they were seeing whether he was right, whether the theory would hold.
It’s a really incredible story. The Medici story is full of things like that. It is awe-inspiring. … I think we may have kind of an arrogance about the past. We may look back and think we are smarter than they were, but we weren’t. The ambition that these people had and the vision they had for the future—and to build the future—is just awe-inspiring. They did it and it’s the world we all live in today.
Why did you want to be part of an Italian production?
Spotnitz: I believe in this project and the producers and in this country. … The beauty of this country and the artisanship on this show, which Richard sees every day, the perfectionism of the sets and the costumes and the photography is inspiring. It’s as good or better than anywhere else in the world. … Italians probably don’t know that everybody loves this country, everybody dreams of coming here.
How historically accurate will this be?
Spotnitz: We read a lot of books and you have to kind of imagine the personalities of people in this story. We don’t know whether Giovanni de’ Medici was murdered or not, but we thought if he was that creates a very powerful, dramatic situation for his sons because they don’t know who killed him. That is sort of the starting point for our series. It creates this narrative spine through which you can learn about their banking practices and learn about art and all the other amazing things they did to change the world while keeping it very personal and making it a crime thriller.
I want to be deeply entertained about the show. I don’t want people to feel like they’re being spoon fed history, I want them to feel like they’re following fascinating, rich, contradictory characters—principally Richard’s—through eight hours and enjoying it. Then after its over maybe there’s something to think about as well.
What can you tell us about Cosimo?
Richard Madden: I play a younger version of Cosimo who is this kind of free-thinking, creative, artistic, naive to a point … character. And then playing the character 20 years later who essentially is a very different man. He’s gone down one path in his life but he still has this beating heart for something else. He wants that creative side.
It’s interesting also shooting out of sequence in playing the younger character and in playing the older character and seeing how the two effect each other. And some days I don’t recognize them as the same person. And other days there are little sparks I see of one in the other. When I’m younger I see his ind for logic or when I’m older I see this very powerful banker who has such a deep passion for art.
These two contradictions work very interestingly but also are very difficult to try to knit together. … Hopefully we’re doing it right.
What can we expect from the series?
Spotnitz: Really it’s about Cosimo’s journey as a man. You flash back to the younger Cosimo, but it’s really about Cosimo in the wake of his father’s death and the journey he goes on. … He sacrifices a lot to achieve what he achieves. That’s what’s moving about it to me.
It goes back to what Richard was saying. This was an age when people really believed in bigger ideals than just their own well-being and making money and staying safe. They really believe that there were sacrifices you should make—and he does. That’s when it’s over, when you’ve seen he’s made that complete arc and he’s come to terms with everything he’s had to do.
Will there be love stories for Cosimo in the series?
Richard Madden: You might see more than one. That’s all I’m going to say, you gotta watch it.
Richard Madden meeting fans outside Roma Fiction Fest