The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty
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The Ugly Renaissance is a delightfully debauched tour of the sordid, gritty reality behind some of the most celebrated artworks and cultural innovations of all time.
Tourists today flock to Italy by the millions to admire the stunning achievements of the Renaissance—paintings, statues, and buildings that are the legacy of one of the greatest periods of cultural rebirth and artistic beauty the world has ever seen. But beneath the elegant surface lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption. In this meticulously researched and lively portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that existed alongside the enlightened spirit of the time: the scheming bankers, greedy politicians, bloody rivalries, murderous artists, religious conflicts, rampant disease, and indulgent excess without which many of the most beautiful monuments of the Renaissance would never have come into being.
Florentine merchants who traveled there regularly. In contrast to earlier Italian works, the figures are placed not against an impersonal gilt background but in a well-proportioned, accurately represented room, in the left-hand wall of which can be glimpsed a window looking out onto a rustic landscape, an innovation that was characteristic of the works of artists such as Jan van Eyck. More important, however, there is also a tantalizing sign not only of Filippo’s continued fascination with the
encountered the truly visceral side of Florentine life. It was perhaps no surprise that confronted with a similar array of sights, sounds, and smells, Petrarch felt moved to complain of contemporary existence in harsh terms a little over a century before. In a letter to his friend Lombardo della Seta, Petrarch described his surroundings in terms that did ample justice to the darker side of this part of the city. “To me,” he declared, this life seems the hardened ground of our toils, the
sent Giovanni Ventimiglia: Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, 6.34, p. 269. Pius II sent his own nephew, Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri: Pius II, Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, XII, 353. Sixtus IV ordered the rebellious: Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, 7.31, pp. 309–10. “a poison such that”: Pius II, Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, XI, 305–6. Acting as a lightning rod: For the liveliest account of the Pazzi conspiracy, see Martines, April Blood. On the secret deal with Federico
beggars but crippled beggars in the street. Even in Masaccio’s fresco, riches and poverty coexist. It is, in other words, a scene that Michelangelo would have recognized as having been painted from life. It’s an idealized representation, just like the image of Florence given by Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni. As we have seen from Michelangelo’s trip through the city, no fifteenth-century Florentine street would have been so neatly arranged or so clean and well constructed. The two—very
gratifying all of [their] cravings whenever the opportunity offered.” Those who were of this opinion were driven to ever more indulgent excess by the realization that life was more precious than they had ever thought. Strict sumptuary laws governing dress were all but forgotten, and there was suddenly a profusion of beautifully colored fabrics, delicate, fascinating embroidery, and risqué dresses for women. Pleasure became a way of life, and promiscuity appears to have increased no end. With