The most famous improvised lines in the history of the movies are the ones Orson Welles came up with while playing Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949): “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.”
That statement should have been the epigraph for this somewhat overheated but illuminating book on the dark side of the Renaissance. Alexander Lee, a lecturer in early modern history at Oxford, has written the book to dispel the conventional view that the Renaissance was all ethereal beauty and high-minded cultural aspiration. The problem is that nobody holds the conventional view. In much of the book, he sounds less like Welles than Claude Rains in Casablanca—he’s shocked, shocked, to discover that assorted vices and felonies were occurring on the premises. Actually, he’s just trying to goad his readers into a state of shock: The great cultural achievements of the period “coexisted with dark, dirty, even diabolical realities,” he whispers in our ears in the introduction, like a tout in front of a carnival sideshow. At the end, he makes the same point: “Far from being an age of unalloyed wonder, it was a period of sex, scandal, and suffering.”
It would be an unalloyed wonder if Lee could actually find someone who had been under the impression that Renaissance Italy, notoriously dominated by cutthroat clans and tyrants who were connoisseurs of poisons as much as paintings, was an age of unalloyed goodness or unalloyed anything. The chiaroscuro wasn’t confined to the paintings. The whole place was, as Welles pointed out, a blend of light and appalling dark. A century ago, it’s true, T. S. Eliot’s proper ladies (In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo) were not going to be talking of the great artist’s fistfights, his scatological sketches, his rarely changed, disheveled, smelly clothes, or his affairs with both sexes—all recounted in meticulous detail by Lee. Maybe they would have been surprised to hear that the Renaissance wasn’t all sweetness and light. Today, they’d be watching The Borgias on TV.
But once you’ve discounted Lee’s premise (or maybe just his selling point) you will find this book absorbing and, yes, mildly shocking. Even if you’ve read Vasari’s gossipy 16th-century Lives of the Artists (an obvious source here) or Benvenuto Cellini’s once-scandalous Autobiography, you will be taken farther into the pungent back alleys of the period than most historians will take you.
The Ugly Renaissance begins by letting us see Florence through the eyes of Michelangelo circa 1491, when the artist, only 16 but already a favorite of the ruling Medici, had just had his nose broken in the Brancacci Chapel—an envious fellow teenage artist having clocked him during some argument over the Masaccio frescoes there. We follow him on an imaginary walk through the wide paved streets and handsome squares lined with magnificent new palaces, civic buildings, churches, and crowded markets, evidence that Florence, with its population of 59,000 and its flourishing banking and weaving industries, had become one of the largest cities in Europe and the most prosperous. But then we get to the grittier districts, where narrow, muddy lanes carry a rank odor of garbage and animal and human excrement, while prostitutes and deformed beggars jostle with one another for space at every corner. The contrasts were all the more dramatic for their proximity. Rich and poor often lived literally on top of one another. Even the imposing palazzo of one of the Medici had “six little shops” on the ground floor that were rented out to prostitutes.
Political unrest and violence were always just around the corner. There were frequent bloody conspiracies against the Medici, but then their rule under Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent was little more than government by conspiracy, punctuated by poisonings. And all respectable Florentine families had to keep weapons by the door to hold off the frequent rampaging mobs.
Rome, where Michelangelo ended up, could be even more dangerous; robbery and rape were routine. And the Renaissance popes, culminating in the ruthless Borgia pope Alexander VI, had the sprawling Papal States to rule. They became virtually indistinguishable from the other Italian petty despots, more interested in military prowess or in bestowing lucrative benefices on family members—including their own illegitimate kids—or in display, luxury, and what H. L. Mencken used to call non-Euclidean sex than in religion.