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Book Review: The Ugly Renaissance

By (October 11, 2014) No Comment

ugly renaissance coverThe Ugly Renaissance:

Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty

by Alexander Lee

Doubleday, 2014

Alexander Lee’s new book The Ugly Renaissance positions its straw man juxtaposition right up front in its subtitle: “Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty,” and of course it fails completely unless you’re ignorant enough to think of the Italian Renaissance as an “age of beauty” simply because eleven artists did beautiful work during the 100-year span of the thing. No historian in his right mind would try such a shopworn gag when writing about, say, the 17th Century just on the strength of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, but as long as you’re already trading in shallow stereotypes about the Quattrocento, who’s going to care if you put your thumb on the scale now and then, eh? So, since Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli created some masterpieces when they weren’t rogering underage girls and buggering their male apprentices, we’re off to the races.

The enterprise would be saved, just barely, if what followed were either a good examination of those great artists or a good examination of the sordid backdrop to this “age of beauty” – every popular history these days needs a gimmick, after all, and even an obvious straw man can be forgiven if it introduces a work of strength or insight. But instead of doing that, The Ugly Renaissance mainly just introduces more straw men.

Naturally, if you’ve set up a juxtaposition between high art and low-down behavior, you’ve cleared the way to talk about sex, flatulence, sex, disease, sex, greed, sex, and death. And sex. A less enthusiastic master of ceremonies might have been daunted by the fact that so many of the Renaissance’s greatest artists (and statesmen, and explorers, and merchants, and poets, and playwrights) were simply and rather unproblematically homosexual, thereby lacking the titillation of shame or subterfuge, but Lee does what he can with what he’s got, including occasionally feigning a plodding cluelessness:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the evidence for the composition of Michelangelo’s social circles in this period is the fact that it presents his social world as overwhelmingly male. With the fleeting exception of his elusive sister, Cassandra (whose date of birth is, tellingly, unknown), his “bitch” aunt, and the family housekeeper, women are all but invisible. He seems to have had almost nothing to do with them.

Since the book is 450 pages long, its author is also driven to do quite a bit of padding, usually in the form of heavy-handed repetition:

Most misleading of all is the impression of order conveyed by some of the better-known palaces surviving today. Palazzi were hopelessly confused buildings until at least the middle of the sixteenth century. Even at the simplest level, the chaotic nature of Florentine building practices meant that it could often prove difficult to establish where a palace began and ended. Toward the end of the fourteenth century, for instance, Pagolo de Baccuccio Vettori found that the structure of his palazzo was so intertwined with that of his neighbors that he couldn’t say exactly where his property began and another’s ended.

It’s a hazard of the territory that lazy repetition can sometimes lapse into simple bad writing, and readers of The Ugly Renaissance get plenty of it, alas. About the persecution of the Jews that was rife during the era (as some of them might have plaintively asked, “This is beauty?”), we learn that “Renaissance anti-Semitism was a powder keg, and it only took the smallest and most irrational of sparks to ignite a towering inferno of brutality,” for instance, and when Lee tells us about the fetid squalor of Florence’s sex trade, he describes brothels that “did a swift business” with people “quite literally” living “on top of one another” (Lee might have successfully written a letter to his parents while literally on top of a lover – one declines to pry – but if he tells us he’s also cooked an omelet in that position, or snaked a drain, or installed a storm window, I, for one, won’t believe him).

But worse of all – most disappointing even in a book so rife with disappointments – isn’t the shoddy concept or the shoddy writing but the shoddy research. Lee holds degrees from Cambridge and Edinburgh, but when, for example, he comes to the quintessence of the “ugly” Renaissance, plague, the most he’s willing to do for his readers is give them warmed-over Boccaccio:

Pleasure became a way of life, and promiscuity appears to have increased no end. With crucial social barriers broken down by the fragmentation of family life, people gave themselves over to merrymaking and rampant sex whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Readers who don’t already know that Boccaccio was using such a manifestly exaggerated description as a rhetorical device to set up a work of literature won’t learn that fact from Lee’s book, and that’s when a book like this (billed by its blurb as “a delightfully debauched journey”) shifts from being merely unhelpful to being actively harmful. There’s no warning label here to alert the reader to the fact that this is at least as much historical fiction as history; instead, those readers get passage after passage of regurgitated centuries-old slander, often without even a wink in the direction of actual historical verification. On the subject of papal indiscretion, for instance, some anonymous, long-dead anti-Borgia attack-hack would preen to see his best work offered up as sober fact:

The popes were particularly renowned for their affairs. Julius II, for example was the father of numerous children and did not trouble to hide the fact too carefully. Rather more famously, Alexander VI slept with virtually anything that moved and is unique in having been suspected of having had sex with his mistress (Vannozzza de Catteni), the daughter she bore him (Lucrezia), and her mother while making a virtue of siring several offspring.

There’s a book to be written on the central juxtapositions of the Italian Renaissance; those juxtapositions were real, and they were interesting. If 21st century readers are patient enough, maybe someday they’ll see that book.