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The Ugly Renaissance
Cover of The Ugly Renaissance
The Ugly Renaissance
Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty
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A fascinating and counterintuitive portrait of the sordid, hidden world behind the dazzling artwork of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and more
Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit.
In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the period's best-known artworks. Rife with tales of scheming bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, bloody rivalries, vicious intolerance, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess, this gripping exploration of the underbelly of Renaissance Italy shows that, far from being the product of high-minded ideals, the sublime monuments of the Renaissance were created by flawed and tormented artists who lived in an ever-expanding world of inequality, dark sexuality, bigotry, and hatred.
The Ugly Renaissance is a delightfully debauched journey through the surprising contradictions of Italy's past and shows that were it not for the profusion of depravity and degradation, history's greatest masterpieces might never have come into being.
From the Hardcover edition.
A fascinating and counterintuitive portrait of the sordid, hidden world behind the dazzling artwork of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and more
Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit.
In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the period's best-known artworks. Rife with tales of scheming bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, bloody rivalries, vicious intolerance, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess, this gripping exploration of the underbelly of Renaissance Italy shows that, far from being the product of high-minded ideals, the sublime monuments of the Renaissance were created by flawed and tormented artists who lived in an ever-expanding world of inequality, dark sexuality, bigotry, and hatred.
The Ugly Renaissance is a delightfully debauched journey through the surprising contradictions of Italy's past and shows that were it not for the profusion of depravity and degradation, history's greatest masterpieces might never have come into being.
From the Hardcover edition.
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    1 Michelangelo's Nose


    One fine summer's afternoon in 1491, the sixteen-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti was sitting sketching in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. With a stick of chalk between his fingers and a sheaf of paper on his knees, he was busy copying Masaccio's celebrated frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel with "such judgement" that all those who saw his drawings were astonished.
    Even as an adolescent, Michelangelo had begun to grow used to such admiration. Despite his youth, he had already earned a degree of celebrity and had acquired a correspondingly high opinion of himself. Carrying a letter of recommendation from the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, he had not only been accepted as a pupil of the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni at the artistic school that had recently been founded in the gardens of San Marco, but had even been welcomed into the household of Lorenzo de' Medici, Florence's de facto ruler. Enraptured by the young man, Lorenzo had ushered Michelangelo into the company of the city's foremost intellectuals, including the humanists Angelo Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola. Michelangelo flourished. He nurtured those skills that were to characterize the art of the period. Studying anatomy with extreme care, he honed the naturalistic style that had been in continuous development since the innovations of Giotto di Bondone, two centuries earlier. And devoting himself to the emulation of classical sculpture, he set out on the path that later led Giorgio Vasari to claim that he had "surpassed and vanquished the ancients." Following a suggestion made by Poliziano in this period, he carved a relief depicting the battle of the centaurs that was "so beautiful" it seemed to be "the work not of a young man, but of a great master with a wealth of study and experience behind him."
    Michelangelo's fame and self-confidence were growing by the day, but as he was about to discover, so was the envy of his schoolfellows. Sitting next to him in the Brancacci Chapel that day was Pietro Torrigiano. Although three years older than Michelangelo, Pietro was another of Bertoldo di Giovanni's pupils and was also recognized as something of a rising star. Competition between the two was almost inevitable. Under Bertoldo's tutelage, they had been encouraged to compete, and they strove to outdo each other in imitating and surpassing the works of masters like Masaccio. Michelangelo was, however, too brilliant and outspoken for the rivalry to be entirely friendly.
    As they sketched alongside one another in the chapel, Michelangelo and Pietro appear to have begun discussing who was better placed to take up Masaccio's mantle as Florence's finest painter. Given their sur- roundings, it was a natural subject. Despite being acclaimed as an artist of genius in his own lifetime, Masaccio had died before he could com- plete the frescoes in the chapel. His work had been completed by Filippino Lippi, although how successfully was a matter of personal opinion. Perhaps Michelangelo, who had spent many months studying the frescoes, observed that Lippi had been unable to match Masaccio's talent and that he himself was the only person capable of attaining—if not exceeding—the master's standards. He may simply have spoken derisively of Pietro's sketches, as was apparently his habit. Whatever the case, Michelangelo managed to enrage his friend. Talented but hardly brilliant, Pietro couldn't stand Michelangelo's ribbing.
    "Jealous [at] seeing him more honoured than himself and more able in his work," Pietro began mocking Michelangelo. If his behavior in later years is anything to go by, Michelangelo might simply have...

About the Author-
  • ALEXANDER LEE is a Stipendiary Lecturer in Early Modern History at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. A prize-winning specialist in the history of the Italian Renaissance, he holds degrees from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, and is the author of numerous academic works on the Renaissance.
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The Ugly Renaissance
Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty
Alexander Lee
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