The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee - review by James Hall

James Hall

High Minds, Low Lives

The Ugly Renaissance


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The purported motive for Alexander Lee’s spasmodically impressive and frequently pantomimic Ugly Renaissance is his conviction that historians and tour guides are serving up an idealised Apollonian image of the Renaissance, and that the seething Dionysian underbelly has been airbrushed and repressed.

It is certainly true that there have been saccharine, soft-focus versions of the Renaissance, but the bowdlerisers have generally been in the minority. The Reformation saw to that, for Protestants, with tireless glee, excoriated the debauchery, nepotism and greed of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, and the warmongering Pope Julius II, whose European-wide sale of indulgences to finance the new St Peter’s inspired Martin Luther’s ‘theses’ (and Erasmus’s dialogue Julius Excluded from Heaven). In the late 16th century we get the birth of Machiavellian man, a secular version of the godless prelates, and ‘Machiavel’ has never gone away. Even in the heyday of the grand tour, with the English upper classes descending on Italy in droves to complete their cultural (and erotic) education, cowled Italian priests – the first hoodies – were being portrayed as the villains of Gothic novels, with none more vicious than Ann Radcliffe’s Father Schedoni in The Italian. Later on, there’s Tito in George Eliot’s Romola and Jorge in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

It is true that some Renaissance artists were elevated into a gleaming ivory tower, no one more so than Raphael. For Robert Browning, he was ‘Raphael of the dear Madonnas’. But the ‘Pre-Raphaelites’ split him into the good early ‘Tuscan’ Raphael and the bad ‘Roman’ Raphael – the Raphael who painted obscene frescoes for Agostino Chigi, who presided over the birth of pornography and who, Vasari claimed, died because of sexual overexertion with a mistress. A popular limerick elevated Titian – but only onto a ladder:

 While Titian was mixing Rose Madder
His model lay posed on a ladder
Her position to Titian
Suggested coition
So he climbed up the ladder and had ’er

Long before Dan Brown, Leonardo was the diabolical artist incarnate – not least because of his unwholesome interest in anatomical dissection – and the Mona Lisa became a femme fatale, a vessel into which, Walter Pater said, ‘the soul with all its maladies has passed!’ Harry Lime in The Third Man succinctly put the case for ‘lilies growing on dung-hills’:

in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Lee’s ‘ugly’ Renaissance is in many respects an heir to this ‘gothic’ Italy, but his obsession with bodily functions is influenced by the ‘history from below’ practised with such brio in Horrible Histories, and by an ever-growing army of coprophiliac academics who wallow in the sensory shock-horrors of the pre-modern metropolis. Lee won’t let us overlook the fact that ‘even the greatest artists had mothers, got into scrapes, went to the toilet, had affairs, bought clothes, and were occasionally very unpleasant people … Michelangelo had his nose smashed in for being cocky.’

This is a defrocked curate’s egg of a book. There are three main components, which we can classify as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The Good are the eloquent straight narrative accounts of Renaissance economics (the history of banking, the wealth of the Medici, the cost of palaces, and so on); politics (communes, tyrants, the Papacy); education (the extraordinary literacy levels in Florence were not superseded until the late 20th century); humanism (panegyrics to Florence and the rediscovery of antiquity); war (mercenaries, Ottomans, etc); and colonialism. Lee is a research fellow at the University of Warwick and he knows this stuff inside out.

The Bad are what Lee calls ‘filmic passages’, in which we get a fantastical day in the life of the apprentice Michelangelo, Michelangelo’s David (‘What David Saw’) or the future tyrant Galeazzo Maria Sforza. We initially have Michelangelo giving a ‘cheerful greeting’ to a fellow artist, then dashing off to draw Masaccio frescoes in a church, ‘waving as he went’. If he starts out like the late Queen Mother, he soon becomes a Caravaggio manqué, his broken nose the mark of someone ‘easily embroiled in fights’.

In an extended filmic passage, the debauched, sadistic Sforza, on a visit to Palazzo Medici Riccardi, spends far longer scrutinising Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, identifying portraits (including one of Cosimo on a donkey) and gauging their significance, than most art historians ever did. Unfortunately, Sforza couldn’t have studied these frescoes as Gozzoli only began painting them a few weeks after he had left Florence. Apparently ‘no expense had been spared’ – but part of the attraction of frescoes, even ones like these dappled with gold leaf, was that they were far quicker and cheaper to make than tapestries, which they imitate. The inlaid stones of the floor and altar were the expensive, blingy components of the chapel. Lee believes art patronage was ‘designed to cover up the most heinous of crimes’, but he never mentions the critique of Italian art patronage made by Machiavelli to the effect that the money spent on antiquities would have been better spent on soldiers, or French derision of Italian nobles for concerning themselves so much with the artisanal products of ‘manual’ labour.

The Ugly strand details the ‘visceral’, ‘dark’, ‘devious’, ‘devilish’, ‘heinous’, ‘nefarious’, ‘ghastly’, ‘squalid’, ‘ugly’ and even ‘dastardly’ sides of Italian life. Based largely on the saucy tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron, we learn that the polymorphously perverse Florentines were ‘at it all the time … Frustrated young men, lusty young girls, bored housewives, and wandering husbands seem almost never to have passed up an opportunity’. But what Lee relishes talking about most are the ghastly smells and illnesses. We could be anywhere – Caravaggio’s Rome, Hogarth’s London or Baudelaire’s Paris. Our sense of smell (and shock) is culturally determined. When everyone smoked, there was little odour; now that few smoke, smokers and nicotine-stained clothes stink.

If Alexander Lee can make a bonfire of his more melodramatic vanities, he has the potential to become a very good writer. But like too many of today’s cultural historians, his current credo is a misquotation of Oscar Wilde: ‘We are all in the gutter and none of us is looking at the stars.’

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