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 –