Roberto Rossellini must have looked at the state of cinema in 1972 and shuddered at the artifice of it all. Actually, his shock at where the cinema was headed no doubt dated earlier; frankly speaking, even a movie like his The Man with the Cross (1943), the earliest film by Rossellini I have seen, clearly grapples with what's in front of the camera as if the very fate of the human race depended on how things were filmed. And maybe they do. The Age of the Medici (1973) is the longest of the three films of Rossellini's late "didactic" period of filmmaking-for-television bravely released on The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse label (with a fourth, the canonical The Taking of Power of Louis XIV, given a standard Criterion edition). It is as angry as anything the filmmaker has ever done, and as beautiful, too.
You wouldn't know to look at it at first, though; characters and plots are non-existent, everything before the camera is an excuse—or should we say exists for the purpose—to educate viewers on the multitude of intersecting issues revolving around human consciousness, endeavor, and faith during the Italian Renaissance. Long takes, long zooms, long speeches typify this period of Rossellini's filmmaking, bone dry of that joy infusing the vast majority of filmmaking—that of melodrama—in favor of practicality and honesty of presentation, and a completely enraptured sense of communication, a filmmaking communicating a world, our world, in dimension and in speech and action through the cinema. All manner of the production, from the huge, three-dimensional rooms that actors and the zooming camera wander around in, to the rich costumery, and long, pedantic dialog, serves as a severely stylized if gently toned attack on image-makers and drama-manufacturers who aspire to cloak what is before the camera and what is before they themselves in the real world with layer upon layer of unreality.
Bold-faced and brazen, The Age of the Medici could not be released at a better time. It begins with the mercantile horror that is the rise of modern, credit-based banking: an aging nobleman voices the film's lament that commerce has "developed" (in reality regressed) to the abstraction of the exchange of money and credit instead of honest to goodness exchange of real, value-leaden goods. The web of power and influence Cosimo de' Medici is able to create around this abstraction is worthy of Jacques Rivette's most paranoid conspiracies, and Rossellini's solemn, searching camera treats the revelation of this renaissance of commerce with a seeming neutrality which acquires the distant stance of the aghast. Yet, perhaps more than anything else, Rosellini’s mission with these films (the Eclipse set includes Cartesius  and Blaise Pascal ) is to chart—quite literally chart, in space, time, and carefully controlled cinematic drama—the weave of thought and things that make up the world around us. If the abstraction and distance from reality of commerce is horrifying, the revolution in terms of thought and deed, intellect and artistry in the era were paradoxically sublime.
Thus, to save the day—or at least the cinema—in the final act of Medici’s three part film, a scholar with ideas on his mind finally commits to becoming an architect under the Renaissance ideals of honoring God by combining art and science, properly observing and studying the world, and taking its beautiful precision and bettering mankind by playing by its rules. The arc of the film thereby traces the move from the appalling abstraction of modern banking to the humanist glories that it quite literally inspired and funded: the resulting artistry of the era of the Medici. If ever a film was an allegory of its own making, The Age of the Medici is it. And in a world still saturated by meaningless images, and beset not just by the artifice of images but the artifice of commerce, a work of such simultaneous science—in its facts, its material, and its connections—and art—in its philosophy and its surface beauty—perhaps makes one sigh a little easier about the current progress of human history.