I have to confess I used to hate the Italian Renaissance. This is largely because my only exposure to it was an art history class in which the teacher would (when not talking about the wonders of two point perspective) flash slides of paintings up on a wall and say “who is the artist?”. His students would then examine the style, technique and use of line and shadow and tell the teacher who the artist was. That was the theory anyway. I thought they all looked alike so I always just guessed Michaelangelo. So my general understanding of the Renaissance was ‘a time of incredibly boring people standing around painting things solely to torture me hundreds of years later’. What I didn’t find out until much later was that the Renaissance was an incredible, chaotic period full of evil money-grubbing merchants exploiting the lower classes, unscrupulous politicians who solved their problems by poisoning them, and mercenary bands roving the countryside.
The main purpose of Alexander Lee’s The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in the Age of Beauty is to take those two views of the Renaissance, beautiful art and chaotic violence, and merge them together. Lee argues that you cannot truly understand the paintings, the sculpture and the architecture of the Italian Renaissance unless you understand the often times less than noble motives that underpinned it. To this end Lee takes the reader through the seamy underside of the Renaissance. You see the Medici using their money to crush all opposition in Florence and then using art to legitimize their authority. Unhinged mercenaries who will happily massacre thousands for money and then turn around and try to regain some of their honor through paying for alter pieces. There is a reinvigorated Papacy eager to show the world its greatness through incredible architecture while simultaneously living at the very pinnacle of luxury. It is in essence the Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity that create the Age of Beauty in Lee’s book.
This is a book I wish I had when I was taking that art history class all those years ago. However, If I have to give it one criticism it’s that he might overstate his argument a little. There are times when it feels as if Lee is so eager to prove what a hellhole the Renaissance was that the reader can be left feeling that it was all a post-apocalyptic world with people dressed in doublets and hose. It is easy to forget that normal everyday things that were neither good nor bad happened in the Renaissance.