Lee, Alexander. “The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty”, Doubleday, 2014.
The Sordid Truth About a Time of Beauty
The Renaissance was renowned and famed as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, but it is also a time filled with as many sordid and ugly secrets as there was beauty and brilliance. When we hear the word “renaissance” we usually think of wonderful art and high ideals but behind it all was a “seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that seems more like the present day than a period of high art.
Renaissance scholar, Alexander Lee, has researched period and with the publication of “The Ugly Renaissance” share his findings with us. He shows us the dark contradictions that were hidden within the wonderful art of the time. We read stories about “scheming bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, bloody rivalries, vicious intolerance, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess”. We realize that the art that was produced was no where near the high ideals and the work that emerged from the Renaissance and the artists that produced it were “flawed, tormented” people whose lives took place in a world of “inequality, dark sexuality, bigotry, and hatred”. This book shows us the debauchery and degradation that was the background or some of the greatest masterpieces of the world.
Reading this book makes us aware of the ”base tendencies and avariciousness that was beneath the splendor of the Renaissance. The focus here is on the live experiences of the artists, the desires and designs of their patrons and the politics of the time. While this is a serious study, it is fun to read about the excesses of the period.
Author Lee has done fine research and his style of writing is easily readable while scholarly at the same time. His thesis is that art of the Renaissance can only be understood (and appreciated!) when we set it in its social context. Doing this we find that the most beautiful and glorious works of art then take on a different appearance. This is where deconstruction is necessary and he uses it to look at three different areas of artistic activity.
First, Lee looks at the social environment of the Renaissance artist and we see that there were artists who led somewhat unpleasant lives in the poorer, cramped parts of the city and used their conditions in their paintings. The second area is that of the patrons of art— those who paid for art to be made. The patrons were three specific groups—bankers, mercenaries and popes.
We see here how art was used to legitimatize the power, wealth, and authority of each of these groups (that were morally questionable), and Lee presents not only the propagandistic value of art, but also the contrast between image and reality. Then Lee looks at how Renaissance attitudes to the wider world can be found in the art of the period. This is where the surprises come. We learn that Mary’s earrings in Lorenzotti’s painting “The Presentation at the Temple” show the artist’s admiration and respect for the Biblical heritage shared by both Jews and Christina even while anti-Semitism existed throughout Renaissance society. In another painting we become aware of pseudo-Arabic script in another painting and this shows that artists found Islam to be both horrifying and fascinating. Regarding the discovery of what is now the Americas, Lee says that the New World did not influence Renaissance art at all and the artists seemed to have cared less about it.
Lee writes in a way that brings history to life as well as provides anecdotes that help to further illustrate the period. His character studies are also brilliant. The rivalry between Michelangelo and Pietro is explained as they compete against each other to be the best of the time. Then there was the Black Death that killed between 45% and 75%of those living in Italy during a three-year period. These facts alone could cause the title “The Ugly Renaissance” to fit and the paintings inspired by the Black Death
depicted events and demeanor of the people who lived during that time. I doubt many of us considered Ethiopians during this period but it is interesting to note that Italians considered them to be directed descended from Noah’s son Ham and while they were considered to be Christian, they became slaves. Then there is Michelangelo and the story of his lust and craving for another male.
It has never been a secret that the Renaissance was depraved—we saw with the Borgia pope who was one of the most evil in history. Books have written about murder and adultery during the period but here the author believes that modern admirers of the art and literature of the Renaissance tend to romanticize the era, seeing only the beautiful altarpieces and statues like Michelangelo’s David in isolation from the horrific society that produced them. His argument is that the modern world believes that people who paid for and produced art and poetry that was so beautiful could not have been bigots, murderers and rapists. Therefore his book is an attempt to tear down the sanitized picture of the Renaissance as a wonderful time of intellectual discovery and instead show us the steaminess of the period. Lee describes “how many of the altarpieces, with pictures of the art patrons painted into them, were given to churches to alleviate the guilt that the wealthy merchants, violent soldiers and corrupt church officials felt about their sin-stained lives. Huge libraries were built by merchants fearing that they would spend eternity in purgatory or hell for ruthless acts of usury”.
The Renaissance was driven by vice of every description. Florence was “the loom on which the fabric of the Renaissance was woven” but it was also the home of much seedy activity. “Florence was a teeming mass of humanity, the wealthy, the poor and indigent, whores and merchants selling their wares at the top of their voices, parades of often hypocritical sex-crazed ecclesiastics, shrieking children, everybody trying to elude the mounds of human waste dumped in the ill-paved streets, rubbed cheek by jowl. Pickpockets did a lively trade, murders were endemic, the smells horrendous. Michelangelo’s magnificent David at the Piazza della Signoria looked down upon a city of sinners, a city of vice and corruption. With David Michelangelo’s genius was fully recognized. However, like all artists of the period he was dependent upon patrons for his livelihood”.
Disease was everywhere and we learn that Michelangelo who lived to the age of 88 suffered from health issues his entire life. There was no privacy whatever and citizens became thoroughly jaundiced by sex, leaving no room for romance but nevertheless they fornicated as vigorously as ever. It was said no woman in Florence remained a virgin after the age of twenty and both men and women were serial adulterers.
At the time of the Renaissance, Italy was made up of some thirty independent states such as Florence and Milan, each with its own government, laws and mercenaries- and vices. Rome, incredibly, was a backwater until a series of churchmen and several popes determined to make it Christianity’s crown jewel not really as a glorification of Christ but a glorification of themselves. Somehow Jesus the son of a carpenter, was lost. The Sistine Chapel (named after Sixtus IV), the Borgia Apartments and even Saint Peter’s Basilica were monuments not to Christianity but symbols of wealth annexed to the families of Popes and cardinals. The great beauties of the Renaissance were obtained at a price. Artists had to have patrons and the patrons had to have power. Politicians as they were, churchmen schemed, and eliminated those who stood in their way.
The book is as lascivious as many current affairs, but describes people, places and art that will continue to live on much longer and it is from a background like this that great art was created.