God vs. Art vs. the Magnificent Medici
*If this were a Youtube video, it would be titled something like, "An unnecessarily long deep dive into Medici" but this all makes sense. I think. I should also say, these were real people in history, but I'm writing strictly from the series and the thoughts I had watching it. Spoilers ahead*
Yesterday, I decided to revisit seasons 2 and 3 of Medici on Netflix. I've rinsed all 3 seasons on more than one occasion, usually to hype up my girls, Contessina and Clarice, and yell through my screens at their trifling husbands when I need to. So yes, it was only yesterday that a lot of what was going on politically and socially made sense to me. Or maybe certain things became clearer to me because I've lived more life.
Medici is based on the lives of the Medici family, a powerful Italian family who lived in the 15th century. In season 1, subtitled Masters of Florence, Cosimo de Medici takes on the running of his family's successful bank and strategises to protect it and his family from their enemies. Seasons 2 and 3, the Magnificent, follow his grandson, Lorenzo, as he essentially does the same. Both men are good with words, charismatic and strategic so much so that you want to trust them but you can't (or, if they got you like me, you know you probably shouldn't trust them, but you do). And, both men have a deep love for the arts and philosophy, with Lorenzo referring to them as the "higher callings" (S2 Ep. 2)
Spoken like a true artist.
I'd consider myself an artist, so I completely share Lorenzo's sentiments. I truly hope you feel that about whatever you have decided to pursue, but you are in an arts lover's space right now.
I wrote a thesis paper in University about how watching Western media made me into a 'cultural hybrid,' and how that would affect what I created. In my research for that paper, I came across this quote by Jonathan Friedman (1997), "In the works of the post-colonial border-crossers, it is always the poet, the artist, the intellectual, who sustains this displacement and objectifies it in the printed word." The paper was specifically about culture, so he is pointing out how only people who have had the opportunity to experience various cultures are able to feel the conflict of all of them, but it was interesting to me that he mentioned it was the poets, artists and intellectuals who were able to identify these feelings and express them in their art. He's implying something I've heard writers and filmmakers talk about a lot: art helps us make meaning of life.
Lorenzo (we're back to Medici now) frequently commissioned artists to create for him, among whom was his best friend, Sandro Botticelli, whose one aim in life was to "capture the beauty of God." What exactly is that? We don't know. And it looks like Sandro also doesn't, because he remains restless no matter how many paintings he creates, until he meets and paints the beautiful Simonetta Vespucci. Sandro is so taken with her when he meets her, calling her the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. The first time I watched that, I thought we would get a romance subplot with both of them, but as the episodes went on, I realised that he wasn't interested in her like that. My man fully just wanted to paint her. To him, she was the beauty of God, a beauty that he did not desire to possess but was honoured to preserve (girl-). Sandro is a true 'for the love of the game' artist, one of those ones who put their whole soul into it and find it a spiritual exercise.
Lorenzo was also interested in philosophy and science, something he and Sandro did not share, because Sandro, in his pursuit of God through art, saw philosophy and science as occupations that stopped people from finding the divine, in their pursuit of wisdom. Lorenzo cheekily stumps Sandro in a debate by asking, "Where does that wisdom come from, if not from the Lord?" (S2 Ep. 1). Personally, I don't think Lorenzo cared too much where the wisdom came from. This was something he enjoyed and it was okay for him to enjoy it without thinking too much about it. I used to feel weird saying my favourite film is Scooby-Doo 2, because 'I studied Media and should find something more compelling or deep', but it has been since I was 7 and I genuinely like it more every time I see it. And that's okay. I think with 'artists making meaning of life', we sometimes expect people to approach everything they piece of art with life or death critical thinking but... maybe it's just a vibe. Lorenzo loves art, science and philosophy ~because~. Sandro is a bit more of a purist when it comes to this. We see his and Lorenzo's different approaches to art come to head in season 3 when he walks away from a project Lorenzo commissions because it requires him to continually paint death. For Lorenzo, he is making a statement through art, for Sandro, it does not capture God's beauty and is therefore antithetical to why he creates in the first place.
But, perhaps the most interesting dynamic in the show for me was with Lorenzo and Girolamo Savonarola, a Priest, who constantly preached fighting for the oppressed and the poor. He lived a simple life, and wasn't too fond of the Medici lavish lifestyle or some of the ways they preserved their power, and would constantly challenge the rich and powerful to help those in positions less fortunate than theirs. At this point, I'm like "yes! Read them!" I literally said to myself yesterday, "I agree with him, why do I remember seeing him as a villain?" His 'simplicity is the way to God' mantra clashed loudly with Lorenzo's 'beauty is the way to God'; so much that he had art Lorenzo had commissioned burned after Lorenzo's death in a "bonfire of the vanities." This rhetoric was common in a lot of churches at some point, that anything physically beautiful was inherently bad because it distracted from God, and there were a lot of Christians categorising the arts as unimportant at best and demonic at worst because of it, the implications of which a lot of people still feel today. What is interesting for me is that art, which for years had been seen as a way to honour God, would all of a sudden become something that distracts from Him, not even because of the way it was made or by its content, but because it was art. I remembered Savonarola as a villain because he dismissed an entire form of expression without trying to understand what people were saying with it.
It's interesting that there's not a lot of room for nuance in spaces like his. Can art be used for vanity? Yes. Can it be deep, and empowering, and emotional, and "show God's beauty"? Yes. Can it just be fun? Yes. All three can be true, even about the same piece of art, depending on a wide range of things. In fact all three can be true for a bunch of different things: money, clothes, food; that doesn't make them inherently bad.
Yet, the fear had already been sown.
A few days before I released my book, I worried about how people would receive it. I'm proud of the work I did, and would not release anything I wasn't happy to share, but there was still that thought, "Is the message 'good' enough?" which, I guess when boiled down, was "will people think this message is not 'Christian' enough? Will they have wanted her to be more considerate, more long suffering? Does she come across as too selfish, and am I therefore promoting something bad?"
My friend and I are working on a story that is set in a pre-colonial Nigerian world, a time before people spoke English, went to conventional schools... or practiced Christianity. We've had conversations about some people seeing what we're doing as dangerous, and, both being Christian, have worked through a tension that didn't exist when we were creating our fictional world, but came about when other people's opinions got involved. Still, we're going on with it because of something I think a lot of artists believe: when you're creating a story, or a song, or a painting, or a film, every decision you make in the process has to serve the work. Your decisions are for the good of what you're creating, to make it a good piece of art. Otherwise, what's the point? The fear of whether every detail is holy enough or could be misinterpreted, I believe, is one that keeps the artist from doing good work; and I honestly think it's what a lot of art that declares itself 'faith based' suffer from (just to be clear, I'm not saying all faith based art bad). What we get when we worry more about what people think about what we're creating than what we're actually creating, is messaging that doesn't work with the medium or art that's just not good.
I really believe that the mere act of creating is God-honouring, because I'm Christian and believe that ability comes from God, and I think then that it is my responsibility to make sure I'm doing the craft well. For me, that means making stories where what needs to be beautiful is beautiful, what needs to be messy is messy, and what needs to be ugly is ugly, even if I never explicitly mention God. A friend of mine told me that she read my book at a time when she was reflecting on why she had decided to do the things she was doing, which is exactly what I was doing when I wrote it. She said when we met up, "that's why it's good to write your experiences and share them. You see that we're all going through this together." My book didn't give her answers, it was just me working through what I was feeling at the time, but it let her know she wasn't alone in her experience, and gave us an opportunity to share the things we were concerned about with each other. My lead character being a 'selfish people pleaser' created that moment, and to me, that's deep, and meaningful, and God-honouring.
There's this false sense of humility that can come with disregarding something beautiful or fun not because you're trying to get a clearer head or create boundaries to help your soul, but solely because it is beautiful or fun. Lorenzo ends up warning Savonarola about this (we're back to Medici again) towards the end, saying, "if this is punishment for anything, it's somehow thinking I could take God's place. Don't do that, Father" (S3 Ep. 8). Art, in all its forms and beauty and confusion serves a purpose for us, and I know that pieces of art that I don't understand or like could also give people hope, or make them laugh, or bring them comfort. And that's beautiful.
A lot of my fears are more 'religious'- you could say- because I am a person of faith, but they might manifest differently for you. For every creative reading this, whether you believe in God or not, I'm going to end this how I ended my entry about The Menu:
Forget the audience and see what happens.
*All 3 seasons of Medici are streaming on Netflix*
*Now that all that's been said, I'm trying to be in Italy*