February 10, 2004

Facts, interpretations, and popular history

On Sunday, The Washington Post reviewed a new PBS documentary on the Medici family that sounds like one of the silliest attempts at popular history of the year. The documentary, it seems, treats the Medici as a bunch of thugs, unintentionally portrays most Renaissance artists as dull and unimaginative, and betrays a complete lack of interest in the political and social context of the time. Its central conceit is that the Medici family was like a modern-day Mafia clan; the film is called "Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance" and, as the review points out, "not 10 minutes into this overheated attempt at potboiler history, you realize that someone must have had a very bad idea at the original planning meeting: Let's tell real history like Francis Ford Coppola makes movies."

In short, it sounds to me like this was a history documentary made by people who aren't interested in history. (Why would anyone feel a need to enliven the story of the Medicis by making frequent Mafia allusions, when the family's story is fascinating and entertaining in its own right?) The reviewer's commentary is convincing, and sometimes devastating; the reviewer outlines problem after problem in his account of where the film-makers went wrong. My one criticism was that the reviewer combined a compelling critique of the series with an implicit restatement of a common misconception about history: that it's primarily a collection of facts.

The Washington Post criticizes the documentary, and rightly so, for its treatment of nearly every academic subject it touches on, but it reserves some of its most searing criticism for the film's portrayal of art history:

Anachronism abounds, which defeats the efforts of the filmmakers to give the viewer a feel for period dress, style and manners. Also abundant are the cliches of art history documentaries: Artists, like Botticelli, see women in diaphanous dresses with long flowing tresses, inspiring them to make paintings of women in diaphanous dresses with long flowing tresses. The odd subtext of this, of course, is that artists lack imagination, creativity and invention.

But they are brave souls. Artists and thinkers must confront the forces of reaction and darkness. They must persevere through the rantings of religious fanatics like Savonarola, or the persecutions of the Inquisition. They are inspired by the high, sustaining ideals of truth and beauty, and they must bequeath to the world a new enlightenment.

It's not that any of these generalities are false. But they are self-defeating to the presumed intent of popular history-making: to make history entertaining. Cliches shut down curiosity. Perhaps Donatello's David was "revolutionary" and Michelangelo's David "extraordinary" but saying so adds very little to the way we might see these works. It simply puts them into the comfortable category of "the unprecedented" or the "without equal" that assures us that they are very good indeed -- and lets us move on, smoothly, to the next Great Work.

Most of this criticism is convincing. I found the review's argument that PBS unintentionally portrayed Renaissance artists as lacking in "imagination, creativity and invention" quite compelling, and enjoyed the way it made fun of the documentary's lack of depth. I wonder, however, just what anachronisms appeared in the film. How problematic were they? At one point the reviewer takes the documentary to task for playing music from Handel's Messiah when it shows the completion of the Florence cathedral, for example, pointing out that this music was "composed a mere 300 years after Brunelleschi's dome." I agree that Handel doesn't seem like the ideal choice for the soundtrack of a documentary on Italy, but I'm not convinced that this is as damning as the reviewer believes. It would have been preferable to play something evocative of the time, but it's not as if anyone was misled about history or about the Renaissance by this choice of music.

The review goes on to criticize the film's portrayal of history:

The odd thing about "Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance" is how much its contemporary filmmaking style goes hand in hand with a very old-fashioned style of history-telling. Through graphics and music and costumes and fancy camera work, the anecdotes are retold with flair. But given the absence of any economic or political depth, or any explanation of the deeper fissures that led to the Reformation, the series feels like a parody of Victorian history-telling. Of course you can't put everything in, but the series does prattle on for four hours. There was room for more of those wonderful things known as facts.

Again, this take sounds convincing. To put it mildly, facts are always a good thing to include in a history documentary. Greater depth is always a good idea.

I'm sometimes a little wary of the reviewer's view of history, however. He criticizes this film as "a parody of Victorian history-telling" without telling what this means; he criticizes it as "reenactment history" without explaining what's wrong with reenactment. What strikes me as most questionable, however, is the reviewer's implicit solution: add in more facts! Though I haven't seen the documentary, I get the sense that it was long on assertion and short in interpretation; what it needed was to do a better job explaining the role of the Medicis in the Renaissance, not reciting facts about them. A firmer factual basis could be the foundation for a more sophisticated take on what was happening, but the indiscriminate addition of facts wouldn't have saved this series.

The most sophisticated criticism, I believe, not only points to the flaws in a work of art or entertainment, but conveys an understanding of how that work's genre can succeed at its best. It sounds like PBS has chosen to air a silly and mediocre series about the Medici family, and The Washington Post has done an entertaining job pointing out some of its weaknesses. Nevertheless, I can't tell from the review whether this "Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance" is just a shallow and silly attempt at popular history or whether it's an even more atrocious waste of time and money. The Washington Post's review treads along a fine line between compelling criticism and more shallow, almost elitist criticism--it just would have been more convincing if it had provided more examples and had seemed more thoughtful in its representation of the genre of history.

Posted by Ed at February 10, 2004 01:15 PM
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