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Review: The Ugly Renaissance (Updated)

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The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty by Alexander Lee released yesterday.

Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit.
     In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the period’s best-known artworks. Rife with tales of scheming bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, bloody rivalries, vicious intolerance, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess, this gripping exploration of the underbelly of Renaissance Italy shows that, far from being the product of high-minded ideals, the sublime monuments of the Renaissance were created by flawed and tormented artists who lived in an ever-expanding world of inequality, dark sexuality, bigotry, and hatred.

I’ve always been a bit of an historical tourist.  I’ve never delved deep into any particular era, picking and choosing here and there, and then, on a whim.  More recently I’ve developed what appears to be an enduring interest in the Renaissance.  Like everyone else, I knew it was a period of development in the sciences and humanities from which a great deal of our cultural heritage blossomed.

But all that blossoms grows in the dirt.  Digging in to, for example, Casanova’s memoirs, I caught disturbing glimpses of what lay in the interstices between the great works,  I wanted to know more. When I caught sight of this book, I knew I had to take a closer look.

The Ugly Renaissance shines its light behind the big names of artists, patrons, military commanders, and popes to define and detail the cultural context in which they existed. Alexander Lee explores the complex interrelated nature of commerce, criminality, sublimity and sin. He seeks to expose the hidden motivations and machinations that lead to the creation of some of the most enduring artistic achievements in European history.

In order to do this, he begins with perhaps the most recognizable name of the period: Michelangelo. This imaginative journey through Florence explores the tension between effluence and affluence, grounding the reader in the familiar and setting the scene to come. Michelangelo emerges as s constrained, calculating and ultimately tortured individual that more or less lived up to the ideals of the Renaissance even as he indulged in its darker pursuits. The importance of the ancillary players in his personal drama only becomes clear as the book progresses.

Thus interrogated, the Renaissance is ready to reveal its secret heart.  On this sturdy foundation we encounter The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem created by Benozzo Gozzoli for the Medicis – merchant bankers, political power brokers, and even popes.

Because the reader has already encountered the trader tyrants, condottieri, clergy, and prelates, Lee is able to excavate the frescoes with terrifying precision. And this is where the book really got interesting for me.  Three generations of a scheming family, two competing warlords, and the heads of rival states parade on a pilgrimage.  And that only scratches the surface.  The network of business, politics, influence, and religion that explodes outward from a single silent power play was riveting to the end.

The Renaissance patron was a ruthless multinational entity focused on profit and perceived legitimacy. Legitimacy reified in the works that artists like Michelangelo and Gozzoli produced for fabulous sums under sometimes ridiculous conditions. These people were sinners convinced they could buy their way into heaven, or at least the hearts of the population.  Conversely, the Catholic Church of the period, often lead by the scions of these families, tied papal legitimacy to temporal power.  And between them warlords and butchers were granted titles and dispensations.

Between the first posting of this review and the book’s release yesterday, I actually confronted the old chestnut about being doomed to repeat history.  Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly suggested that the United States should rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars.  Ignoring the fact that we already tried that with Blackwater, Alexander Lee details exactly why that’s probably a bad idea.  Well, bad if you don’t want the mercenaries running the country after they’re tired of fighting anyway.

The Ugly Renaissance is, appropriately, a finestra aperta on the period, framing not only the best but also the worst of a time of greed, ambition, and accomplishment.  Lee uncovers the incredible truth of the soil in which the seeds of genius germinated.  The filth was not waste, but fertilizer.  And the art, so famous already, is all the more impressive considering its contemptible origins.

Recommended for patient readers, misotheists, and skeptics.

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