The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance by Catherine Fletcher - review by Mary Hollingsworth

Mary Hollingsworth

Popes on the Warpath

The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance


The Bodley Head 419pp £25 order from our bookshop

It is one of the intriguing contradictions of the Renaissance that the art for which this period is justly famous was the product of a society mired in corruption and notorious for its violence – on the battlefield, in the street and in the bedroom. The Beauty and the Terror opens a window onto this other side of the Renaissance, which, as Catherine Fletcher points out, was far stranger and darker than is often realised.

The Renaissance was not only a landmark moment in the history of art; it was also a crucial phase in the wider history of Western culture, bringing radical and lasting change to the political, intellectual, cultural and religious structures of European society. This book concentrates on the 16th century, a period that ‘teeters between old and new’ and saw a revolution in communications thanks to the development of printing. Fletcher maps the era in a series of short chapters, some devoted to important political events and others to more general issues, an approach that enables her to touch on many aspects of this complex time. Above all, she shows how a lot of the shibboleths that define our more politically correct world were openly violated in the Renaissance, not least through the persecution of religious minorities, Jews, homosexuals, people of colour and women.

The book starts in 1492, a pivotal year in European history. It saw the Catholic victory over the Muslims of Granada and the emergence of a united Spain as a major power on the European stage. In Italy the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici had important ramifications for the

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter