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

  • Review
By – December 10, 2020

Cather­ine Fletcher’s The Beau­ty and the Ter­ror explores the caus­es and con­se­quences of what has tra­di­tion­al­ly been con­sid­ered the Ital­ian Renais­sance of art and cul­ture, between 1492 and 1571. By look­ing at the Renais­sance from a lens of cul­tur­al and reli­gious inte­gra­tion, The Beau­ty and the Ter­ror pieces togeth­er the mul­ti-faceted world that birthed this peri­od. Begin­ning 200 years pri­or to 1492, Fletch­er illus­trates how wars, Inqui­si­tions, trade from the so-called New World” to the Silk Road, Papal pow­er shifts, under­es­ti­mat­ed women, and even pornog­ra­phy all played a part in cre­at­ing the right envi­ron­ment for the Renais­sance to occur.

Though often referred to as the Ital­ian Renais­sance,” Fletch­er clar­i­fies how cru­cial sur­round­ing city-states and coun­tries were in influ­enc­ing this time peri­od, with an empha­sis on the pow­er in the Vat­i­can. Under­stand­ing the famil­ial and polit­i­cal land­scape of the time (hav­ing Car­di­nals and Popes with ties across Europe), cre­at­ed a tan­gled web that high rank­ing artists were forced to nav­i­gate, as this peri­od also marks the shift from a sys­tem of artists work­ing for house­holds and mas­ters, to being asso­ci­at­ed with their works by name.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the impact the Ital­ian Wars had on the Renais­sance is heav­i­ly dis­cussed. Italy wasn’t a unit­ed coun­try at the time, and while those from the area were referred to as Ital­ian abroad, it was real­ly a loose col­lec­tion of city-states. There­fore, the pow­er of the Papa­cy also played a mon­u­men­tal role that Fletch­er describes with vivid detail.

Offer­ing new insights into the tech­niques and exper­i­ments that artists of the time, like Leonar­do Da Vin­ci, were devel­op­ing, Fletch­er incor­po­rates tid­bits of the artists’ lives pre­vi­ous­ly unknown to many – such as Da Vinci’s time in Milan design­ing artillery. Part of the mas­tery of this book is the con­trast it draws between what’s now con­sid­ered clas­sic art and the actu­al dai­ly unrest and trau­ma that led to its cre­ation. Fletch­er pro­vides enough con­text of the pow­er shifts in gov­ern­ment and reli­gion with­in the pre­vi­ous cou­ple of decades to estab­lish a use­ful base­line for the read­er to under­stand the Renaissance.

Going fur­ther than its pre­de­ces­sors, how­ev­er, The Beau­ty and the Ter­ror also adds a mod­ern per­spec­tive on the real­i­ties of a diverse and var­ied soci­ety – in eth­nic­i­ty and reli­gion – that has been lack­ing in much lit­er­a­ture of this genre. Lovers of art his­to­ry will appre­ci­ate the glossy col­or insert fea­tur­ing paint­ings, sketch­es, and fres­coes, many of which are con­sid­ered clas­sics of this era, and will take great joy in read­ing such a detailed explo­ration of the many his­tor­i­cal com­po­nents that led to this explo­sion of rebirth.

Rebec­ca Zaret­sky works at a syn­a­gogue as the Youth & Fam­i­ly Edu­ca­tion & Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor. She has a Bachelor’s degree in the study of Human­i­ties, pri­mar­i­ly visu­al arts and literature.

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