A Darker View of the Renaissance

By John T. ScottAugust 6, 2020

A Darker View of the Renaissance

The Beauty and the Terror by Catherine Fletcher

AS CATHERINE FLETCHER NOTES at the outset of her new book, The Beauty and the Terror: The Italian Renaissance and the Rise of the West, millions of tourists flock to Florence every year to gaze at the architecture and art of the Renaissance jewel box. They photograph the Duomo topped by Brunelleschi’s dome, wait in long lines to see Michelangelo’s David, fight their way across the Ponte Vecchio, and savor gelato. Such is the “beauty” of the title. Yet there is also “terror” shadowing these beauties, which Fletcher aims to bring to light in order to provide a richer account of the Italian Renaissance. In her introductory chapter, she highlights three examples: the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was married to a slave trader; one possible model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a famous Venetian courtesan, was gang-raped; and the Florentine Republic symbolized by Michelangelo’s David came to an end in 1530 with the sack of the city and ensuing slaughter of thousands. The beauty and the terror.

In addition to informing admirers of the artistic and other familiar achievements of the Italian Renaissance of the often less-than-beautiful political and social context in which they were produced, Fletcher wants to contextualize the history of Italy during the period within larger trends across Europe and indeed the world, as indicated in her book’s subtitle. The Italian Renaissance has frequently been characterized — or caricatured — as the birthplace of modern Western civilization, or rather the rebirth (renaissance) of this civilization with the rediscovery of classical learning and art. In this interpretation, Italy is the source of the literary, artistic, and scientific movements that then spread throughout Europe and ultimately across “the West.” While she recounts the achievements of the Italian Renaissance and their influence, Fletcher puts as much emphasis on how the larger European and international context shaped the political, social, religious, economic, artistic, and intellectual currents in Italy during the period.

Fletcher’s introduction — titled simply “1492” — provides a good illustration of her goal. That year witnessed three events that would have greater ramifications than those who lived through them could have appreciated. First, there was the death of Lorenzo “The Magnificent,” the head of the Medici family that effectively ruled Florence for the previous 60 years and an important patron of learning and art. In retrospect, Lorenzo’s death destabilized not only Florentine politics, for just two years later his heir would flee the city and the republic would be restored, but also the delicate balance of power in the Italian peninsula, opening the door for foreign armies to invade Italy and make it the battleground of Europe for the next 40 years.

The second event of 1492 was the final reconquest of Spain with the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Moors, followed in short order by the flight of the Jews. Apart from the dislocations caused by the event itself, the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella was representative of the formation of what would become the modern state in Spain, France, and elsewhere, a development that made Italy vulnerable to invasion and plunder, with its own unification having to wait nearly four more centuries. The third event was the discovery of the New World in October of that year, by a Genoese captain sponsored by their most Catholic majesties of Spain, to be followed a few years later by, among others, a Florentine merchant and navigator who lent his name to these newly discovered lands: Amerigo Vespucci. Soldiers, priests, and other adventurers followed, seeking the gold that soon flooded Europe, leaving behind smallpox while bringing back such unknown items as tomatoes and corn, without which Italian cuisine would be unrecognizable today.

In short, as Fletcher shows in this chapter, the direction of influence between Italy and Europe (and the world) ran in both directions. Fletcher persuasively illustrates that understanding the Italian Renaissance requires understanding the larger context of the early modern world, and vice versa.

Beginning in 1492, with some glances backward to consequential incidents such as the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, Fletcher ends her account with the defeat of the Ottomans by the Holy League at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Her reasons for choosing this end date are unclear. But it has the effect of extending the usual treatment of the “High Renaissance” beyond the customary terminus point of the end of the Italian Wars with the sack of Rome in 1527 or the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1530. In terms of art, this makes some sense, lengthening the account through the first part of the “Late Renaissance” period. After all, Michelangelo would live for another 30 years after the fall of Florence (whose fortifications he oversaw), spending most of the rest of his life in Rome executing such projects as painting The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and overseeing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. The dating choice makes less obvious sense otherwise. As Fletcher herself notes, the later period saw a decline in Italy’s fortunes as, paradoxically, the relative peace that succeeded the Italian Wars also effectively sidelined the peninsula politically and militarily.

As an overview of Italian Renaissance history in the continental and international context from 1492 to 1571, Fletcher’s book is largely successful. The 26 chapters are generally thematic, most being devoted to political or military events in Italy across the period, giving the book a coherence dictated by chronology. Other chapters, interspersed within this framework, take up such subjects as literary or artistic figures and movements, the discovery of the New World, women’s role in society, the Reformation, the Index of Prohibited Books, and the Inquisition. Fletcher’s coverage of political, military, social, intellectual, and artistic issues is impressive, and she generally does an admirable job tying together these diverse subjects. The sheer number of people and events she covers is sometimes dizzying. Such coverage has a few drawbacks, however. Fletcher seems to want to tell a good story when she has one, and while I enjoyed many of the anecdotes she relates, sometimes they felt forcibly inserted into the narrative. There is also considerable repetition, and while it is useful to be reminded who someone is upon their most recent appearance, I did not need to be told over and over that Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este were sisters-in-law or reminded four times that Francesco Maria della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, murdered Cardinal Alidosi. At any rate, as someone fairly well versed in this history, I did not have difficulty keeping up with all the people, places, and events, but I did wonder how someone less familiar with the subject would fare.

Fletcher’s more substantive aim of exhibiting the “terror” lying behind the “beauty” of the Italian Renaissance is in my view less successful. First of all, although awestruck tourists might marvel at the beauty of Italy’s art and architecture without much sense of the blood and suffering that accompanied it (unless, of course, they watched Showtime’s series The Borgias, in which case they would have a sensationalized view), no scholar of the period would be surprised. In this regard, Fletcher is jousting with something of a strawman, or at least a largely mid-19th-century gossamer version of the Renaissance. Moreover, to recur to the three examples she gives of terror lurking behind beauty in her introductory chapter, I am not clear on how my view of the Italian Renaissance should be affected. The first example is the alleged fact that the subject of the Mona Lisa, Lisa Gherardini, was married to a slave trader. When we finally get to the story, we learn that he was a merchant involved at some small remove from the transatlantic trade, and that he had several enslaved people baptized in Florence, which does look suspicious. More surprisingly, given Fletcher’s initial statement and the marketing materials for the book, we are informed that he was “very likely” a slave trader. This is not the smoking gun we had been promised. (Incidentally, I believe Mona Lisa was Lorenzo del Giocondo’s third wife, not his second.)

The second example Fletcher gives is that a potential model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the courtesan Angela Zaffetta, was gang-raped by 31 men (a ritual punishment for courtesans). This time Fletcher only claims the woman is a “possible” model for the painting, but while I learned more about the poor treatment of courtesans, I do not know how my view of the painting itself, much less Renaissance art, should be affected by this possibility. The third example is the fact that the Florentine Republic came to an end in 1530 with “a sack of ‘unheard-of cruelty.’” Yet that is not what happened. Florence surrendered after a year-long siege, and while the protracted fighting throughout the Florentine territories cost perhaps 10,000 lives, the surrender of the city itself was remarkably bloodless. The usual suspects among the republican leadership were rounded up — a few were executed, some tortured, others exiled ­— but otherwise it was a miraculously mild transition of power for the time. Indeed, perplexingly, Fletcher’s account of the events within her larger narrative is consistent with these facts. Her description in the introductory chapter sounds more like the 1527 sack of Rome.

Finally, I caught a disturbing number of errors or omissions, and although I would not call any of them consequential for Fletcher’s larger aims, they did begin to undermine my faith in the details of her story. I restrict my attention to Machiavelli, since that is a subject I know something about. Writing of the French invasion of 1494 and the flight of the Medici from Florence, Fletcher characterizes Machiavelli as among the opponents of the Medici at that time. We have no evidence for such a claim, however, especially since the first extant letter we have from Machiavelli is from 1498 and also because we also know that his relationship with the family over time was rather more complicated. Later, Fletcher states that Machiavelli was released from prison due to influential friends, but his release was actually due to a general amnesty granted with the election of Giovanni de Medici as Pope Leo X. She also relays the often repeated but now discredited idea that Machiavelli was exiled from Florence during this same period. In fact, Machiavelli was in something of a “reverse exile” for he was ordered not to leave Florence and its territories for one year. Having been relieved of his official positions, he was only prohibited from entering his former workplace, the Palazzo della Signoria, and during this “exile” Machiavelli frequented the city and was even asked a number of times to return to the Palazzo to help wrap up unfinished business. Finally, Fletcher states that Michelangelo worked with Machiavelli on a 1503 plan to divert the Arno during Florence’s long siege of Pisa, whereas it was Leonardo da Vinci who did so. There are numerous readily available sources she could have consulted on this episode; the source she does cite in fact makes the same mistake with regard to Michelangelo, and itself cites as a source a mid-19th-century book (as Fletcher notes). Oddly enough, this book has nothing to say about the episode at all, in part because it occurred five years after the subject of the biography, Savonarola, had died. In turn, in her bibliography Fletcher mistakenly cites as the source a different book by the same author — a biography of Machiavelli. This is more promising, for Pasquale Villari does discuss the plan to divert the Arno — but with no reference to Leonardo, much less to Michelangelo.

These are the mistakes I caught only with regard to Machiavelli, but I fear there are more lurking in the volume. Even if they are not themselves particularly consequential, such errors are unfortunate and unnecessary, marring what would otherwise be an interesting and informative book.


John T. Scott is professor and chair of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of The Routledge Guidebook to Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” His most recent book is Rousseau's Reader.

LARB Contributor

John T. Scott is professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is The Routledge Guidebook to Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”


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