Avella blasts PBS series depicting ‘mob’ Medicis

By James DeWeese

City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has joined Italian-American groups in criticizing PBS for its “Sopranos”-like treatment of the Medici family in the broadcaster’s February documentary series about the Renaissance-era Italian power brokers, “Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance.”

In a March 1 letter to PBS President Pat Mitchell, Avella said the four-part documentary series’ Web site, which describes Medici family members and their confidantes through the modern-day prism of fictional mob characters — monikers included — offers a particularly distorted view of Italians and Italian-Americans and serves to reinforce negative public perceptions.

A PBS spokeswoman said the company may work with the show’s producers to make changes to the Web site, which was produced for PBS by Devillier Donegal Enterprises.

The Medicis were a powerful family in late medieval Italy who rose from relative obscurity to become one of the region’s most powerful. Their patronage of the arts is largely credited with ushering in the Renaissance.

In the introduction to the Web page titled “Medieval Mobsters,” the show’s site reads “Governing Florence like a medieval mafia, the power of the Medici stretched all the way to Rome, where even the papacy was something to be bought and sold.”

“Certain sections (of the Web site) appear to be referring to television shows about organized crime, such as ‘The Sopranos,’ which promote highly negative stereotypes of Italians and Italian-Americans,” Avella, head of the City Council’s Italian-American caucus, wrote in his letter.

Avella was joined by nine other members of the caucus, including Queens Council members James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside), Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) and Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria).

The Web site, www.pbs.org/medici, also includes “rapsheets” — complete with fictional mug shots — for the most important members of the Medici’s medieval syndicate, where the site’s authors say you can “get the skinny on each member of the Medici family, find out their nickname, form and reputation.” All you have to do is “click on the capo,” the site says.

Among the cast of characters who figure on the Web site are:

• Giovanni de’Medici, one of five sons of a poor, widowed woman. Giovanni watched his family become the third-wealthiest in Italy by the time of his death in 1429.

• Cosimo de’Medici, Giovanni’s son, who was also known as “il Vecchio,” “the Elder.”

• Piero de’Medici, Cosimos’s son, also known as “il gottoso,” “the Gouty.”

PBS spokeswoman Stephanie Aaronson said the network is aware of the concerns and that the company is taking them seriously. “Since it seems like (the negative publicity surrounding the Web site) is detracting from this great program, we are looking at ways to change the Web site,” Aaronson said. Because PBS is making a rigorous examination of the Web site, she said it could take up to two weeks to make any changes. All the changes will be noted on the Web site.

Avella also takes issue with the show’s title, saying “in my opinion, PBS and the show’s producers went out of their way to name the show ‘Godfathers of the Renaissance’ in an effort to influence ratings and boost donations to the PBS stations.”

The term Godfather, he said in a telephone interview, rarely appears in the show and he suggested that the title had been added after production to tie in with the highly successful “Godfather” movies and “The Sopranos” television show.

In his letter, Avella encouraged PBS to remove references to organized crime from the Web site and to consult with Italian-American groups in the future “to avoid the use of stereotypes.”

Avella said he learned about the show, which aired in mid- and late February, while attending a meeting of the anti-defamation wing of the Order Sons of Italy. The Italian-American group, the oldest and largest in the country, has questioned the show’s Web site, sending a letter of its own to Mitchell.

Neither Avella nor the Sons of Italy has denied the historical accuracy of the series, but they have criticized its publicity packaging.

In the Sons of Italy letter dated Feb. 18, the group’s national president, Joseph Sciame wrote “we do not challenge the historical and political realities of renaissance Florence, no [sic] more than we would the political skullduggery that occurred in England, Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire five hundred years ago.

“Can we now expect PBS to produce equally salacious documentaries and Web sites about Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Louis XIV, Charles V and their courts?”

Reach Reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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