24 October 2014

Review: The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee

What does the Renaissance mean to you? If you're like most people, you immediately think of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and basilicas. You might also think of Columbus's voyage and the Protestant Reformation. But you might not remember that the Renaissance was also a time of plague, papal corruption, and a general intolerance for non-Christians and non-Europeans.

In The Ugly Renaissance, Alexander Lee gives us the broader picture of what it was really like in Florence when Michelangelo was carving his David. Few topics are safe from Lee's scrutiny, from sex and greed to disease and poverty. And thanks to Lee's informal and approachable style, the true story of the people and places of the Italian Renaissance is easily accessible and utterly fascinating.

Because the Renaissance occurred throughout Europe and over the course of centuries, Lee narrowed down his scope to three cities in Italy, with a particular focus on Florence, between the years 1300 and 1550. Besides relying on the usual sources (diaries, letters, contemporary publications), Lee also examined various tax and court records to determine, for example, how an artist's income measured up to, say, common laborers in the textile industry. (Hint: You may have been better off to have been a weaver than a studio artist.)

As well as showing us the very human side of the great artists (Michelangelo got into bar fights), Lee takes on a walk through the streets of Florence, into the rich estates of the famous patrons (like the Medicis), and into the papal quarters of Rome. Artists, patrons, and the Church were intimately (in pretty much all senses of the word) connected, and painters were often forced to juggle their own artistic sense with the political ambitions of their clients and the restrictions of Catholicism.

Moving beyond the world of art, we meet the Renaissance popes (such as the infamous Borgia pope) and learn about Rome's relationship to Italy's rich and powerful. Lee airs the Vatican's dirty laundry, including suspicious deaths and family bids for papal dynasties. We also learn about technology and warfare, the prevailing attitude to people of vastly different cultures and religions, the plague, and money and banking.

Although the general thesis of The Ugly Renaissance is likely to offer few surprises, especially in light of the popularity of the Showtime series The Borgias, Alexander Lee presents some less well known details and closely examines representative works of art to show the unromantic side of the "age of beauty." His obvious scholarship is tempered by his entertaining and easy-to-read style, making The Ugly Renaissance widely appealing to everyone from the serious student to the causally curious.

I alternated listening to the unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio; 15 hr, 51 min) and reading the print edition (an approach I often take when reading history and biography). Narrating nonfiction can be tricky, but Arthur Morey did an admirable job of capturing Lee's style and keeping me invested in the book. I was especially grateful for the correct pronunciations of names, places, and so on, which always enhances my connection to a book. As an added bonus, the audiobook comes with a PDF (disk or download) containing the visual material found in the hardcover book, so listeners don't have to scramble to find a copy of the artwork discussed in the text.

Random House / Doubleday, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385536592
Source: Review (audio) / bought (print) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy


bermudaonion 10/24/14, 8:00 AM  

Oh man, I bet my mom would love this book. It just might make a great gift for her.

JoAnn 10/24/14, 8:08 AM  

Love that the audio comes with a way to view visual material included in the text! Nonfiction on audio almost always has me scrambling for a hard copy in order to see what I missed. Hopefully this will become standard practice.

Leah @ Books Speak Volumes 10/24/14, 10:35 AM  

I really don't know much about the Renaissance outside of what I learned about it back in school, but this sounds like a fascinating book!

Mystica 10/25/14, 12:28 AM  

Love the sound of this one

Unknown 10/25/14, 5:21 PM  

I have this on my shelf to review, it sounds great, glad you liked it!

Katherine P 10/26/14, 4:07 PM  

This sounds really good. I love history and especially love getting an inside look at well known events. The audio version sounds interesting and I love that you get a PDF of the visual material. That's one of the things I've worried about with audios of nonfiction before.

Alice 11/23/14, 10:00 PM  

I'm getting this one as it's one of favorite subjects. Thank you so much!

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