Disclaimer: ARC read via Netgalley.
The popularity of the Renaissance to the modern mind can’t be overstated. Whether it is due to the works of Shakespeare, the romance of star crossed lovers, sweaty men astride horses, certain Showtime series, or the sense of fashion, something about the Renaissance captures the imagination of people.
Of course, there is the art. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael. They have press everywhere. Even Disney World, so the Renaissance arrived in the modern mythos a long time ago. It isn’t the real Renaissance of course. Everyone’s teeth are prefect, skin isn’t pockmarked (unless the character is a baddy), clothes are clean, hair is flawless, and everyone looks like they go to the gym. It’s not the just the people – the streets are clean of poop and other things, chamber pots aren’t seen, and the food looks great. Everything is grand except for the scheming blackguards.
Intellectually, most people are aware of this fake cleanliness, but even then the average person is convinced that the Renaissance was a high mark, when people rediscovered everything and started the humanist traits that would be fully developed in the American and French Revolution and the various movements of the 20th century.
Perhaps there is a truth to this very. Alexander Lee, however, does people a service by giving the boot to the fairy tale image.
Lee’s look at the ugly side of the Renaissance focuses mostly on Italy, understandable when you think about it. He starts with Michelangelo, who apparently smelled something awful. The presenting of the ugly side of the Renaissance Art World soon becomes an in depth look at various business practices, marriages, issues of se and slavery throughout the Renaissance.
Lee’s discussion of the Underbelly allows the reader to understand the various factors that led to the creation of not only the famous artwork but also the creation of famous literature. It isn’t simply a discussion of the various business practices of the banking families, but also a look at the average day to day life of the nobody, the various risks and dangers of being a woman as well s the various views on marriage. The Renaissance view of homosexual partnership might surprise you.
It is to Lee’s credit that when he moves away from Italy, it is in part to look at the effects of the Renaissance where the Europeans are the strangers. It isn’t just a look at what the “discovers” did to the native, but also how art and literature portrayed such discoveries. There is a look at the Jewish residents and their treatment, something that points forward to the Holocaust.
This book does what Lee intended it to – to make the Renaissance into a reality as opposed to a Hollywood myth.