Ooo, we're getting into my favorite subject matter in nonfiction---artsy farsty stuff. LOVE it. I'll read anything with art theft, art forgery, and art history. Endless fascinated. I took a lot of classes in art history and humanities in college (way back when), so this book wasn't filled with all new information for me. I loved re-exploring it though.
Alexander Lee focuses on the Renaissance period and touches on the money and power that moved the art to its greatest zenith for the time. Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Raphael were just a few of the artists that were patronized by the wealthy and powerful (like the Popes, the Medicis, the royal families of Europe, etc.) that were in constant power struggles with each other and within their own ranks. It's truly fascinating...even if you don't like art.
Title: The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence, and Depravity in an Age of Beauty
Author: Alexander Lee
Page Number: 448 pages (paperback)
Genre: nonfiction, history, art history, art, politics
Year: 2015 (first published in 2013)
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.
Firsthand accounts give some ideas of the artists of the period (apparently Michelangelo was a bit lax with his personal hygiene at times. Davinci was thought to be gay although I haven't kept up with the thinking, but it was the leading belief when I last looked into it). These artists become less ideal (and Ninja Turtle heroes) and more like the normal men they were.
Lee also looks at the wealth building of the rich and powerful at the time. From the war mongering to the shrewdly vicious banking. He notes how power was maintained: through the state, through military maneuvering, through the church, and through marriage. He talks about religion (Catholicism and Judaism mostly in Italy), trade, the way women were treated, how other forms of money and power were created outside the state (slavery and trade dominance). If you follow history or even current events, it's a similar story over and over through time.
For instance, the infamous Cesare Borgia, muse to Niccolo Machiavelli (he wrote The Prince about him) flourished during this time. His father was the pope, his sister oft wedded for power. He commandeered armies and was probably a sociopath. He's the ideal leader in some ways...and probably would get along swimmingly with some of our current dudes in power worldwide. Or he'd kill them all. You never know with Cesare.
There's a lot of thought that art (architecture, music, and literature, etc., included here) is best understood through an understanding of the political and cultural lens of the time. It's why when art history is taught...they also teach religion, politics, history, and culture at the same time. I think this is also what Lee is doing when he breaks down the "ugly" aspect of the Renaissance.
Art was often used by the wealthy to lead credence to their power. This is not a new idea and it's still current today. While not a new topic to me, I was glad Lee hit upon it as it really explains the rabid patronage of the age. Art was power.
Obviously, there must be a limit to what to include. Lee doesn't go too deep into several pathways. Sexuality in Renaissance is touched upon briefly (and just through homosexuality between men). Some of the more salacious (and truly titillating!) stories are left unwritten. That's alright. Well, for me, since we talked about them in class, and I've read a bunch. If you wanted the tabloid mess of the time...this will be sadly disappointing.
Only a select number of paintings and architecture is mentioned. There just isn't space to talk about it all. I agree with most of the selected works. I have my preferences with others, but Lee isn't making abysmal choices. These are standard paintings when talking about the time period for a reason.
I did have my issues with the book. Lee has a certain writing style that I have to be in the mood for. So, I didn't read this book in one sitting. It's not any different than many other authors who interject their own viewpoints, sometimes against their will. By that I mean, I don't think they even know their tone comes across a certain way. Did I know that Lee was a hoity toity British man by the end of the first page? Yes. Yes, I did.
I mean, I enjoy a smart man, so it didn't bother me!
Lee also loves a theme. I do too...but he can be a bit of a bulldog of making his point about it. Perhaps this is the professor in him...he will beat you (figuratively) with the point so you WILL know it come time for the test. You will thank him later.
The tone overall is a mix of popular historical nonfiction mixed with a chambers lecture for a term review.
I did totally appreciate that the images are in color on glossy paper. I really appreciate details like that.
While art is mentioned. While patronage and the life of artists are explored, the main theme of the book is the "ugly" or stripped bare look at the structure of power that was created by the Medicis, the Borgias, and the Mercenary class of Italy. It's mostly a look at this particular look at culture. Perhaps at times, more with a 21st century viewpoint, but some people need to hear (on a loop) that war is bad, slavery is bad, religious discrimination is bad. Just saying...
Granted, I picked up the book because I thought we were going to really get a fun romp of maybe a Borgia poisoning ring party or Michelangelo stealing away to dissect bodies, or Fra Flippo Lippi running away with a nun. This is not that book.
I did learn things from this. While I've taken many classes of this time period there is no way I learned everything! For some reason (even LIVING in America) I never thought of American "discovery" and the Italian Renaissance. Lee talks about it and how it affected or didn't affect the Italians during this time. Art doesn't seem to be influenced by the art of the New World (to be fair, it's influence of and by the Islamic, African, and Asian areas is also not as prominent as I thought it would be).
Another subject that Lee talked about was the Mercenary groups (or Condottiero) that took power in parts of Italy. Italy wasn't unified and was instead made of city-states, ruled by powerful families or men. For instance, the Medicis were in control of Florence for times, the Sforza's in Milan, Borgias, and d'Estes running around too. I've learned about some of these war-minded men through their art patronage but didn't really follow them besides that. I learned of Malatesta (the Wolf of Rimini) through this book. Malatesta was excommunicated, forgiven, and then communicated into hell. One of his wives died mysteriously, he had several mistresses, he was constantly in battle against the Pope, the Ottoman Empire, other Condottieros, and celibacy.
Overall, I thought this was a nice book to read. It's informative and I think Lee hit all the points he wanted. It's not a salacious read; there's no deep dive into the Pazzi Conspiracy, the incestuous relationship Parisina Malatesta had with her stepson, the prophet Savonarola-who convinced Botticelli to participate in the Bonfire of the Vanities, Fra Flippo Lippi running away with a nun that was modeling the Virgin Mary-although that's not quite the Renaissance time wise, or sisters-in-law Isabelle d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia...who didn't quite get along (Lucrezia was having a full blown affair with Isabelle's husband) --there's some fun stuff to google!
The tone of the book fits more into the "popular nonfiction" style that some historians really hate but I adore. I've read a lot of scholarly work and sometimes it's soooo dry. I can only handle so much!