Book Review: “The Ugly Renaissance”

The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee

 Everybody loves the romantic stories of the Renaissance, Medici’s, Borgias, and Todors, da Vinci and Michelangelo. Glorious humanistic art, men (mostly) reaching for greatness. Underlying this shining age lies,a massive soap opera of unparallelled greed, corruption, and violence. What’s not to like?

But the Renaissance also stands for a set of values and ideals that over the centuries have taken on a significance far beyond a local art movement.  The Renaissance has been seen to be a critical moment in the development of modernism, secularism, science, and democracy. Countless people have looked at Renaissance culture and found their own dreams and aspirations there.

Lee looks at this period, mainly through the lens of the city of Florence, and its relations to Italy and the world. He examines the art and high culture of the period, famously remembered as the foundation of modernism, and one of the highest achievements of Western civilization.

Obviously, this great art and culture came out of a far more mundane and imperfect world. Looking at the glorious masterpieces, it is easy to be seduced by the story they tell. This is often seen as a triumph of higher impulses over the baser nature of human life. Art rising above reality. On the contrary, Lee says, the art directly reflects the everyday world, and, indeed reveals the ugly truth.

The book is a series of analyses, starting from beautiful art and culture, examining the underlying real life, and uncovering how the art truly represents the really ugly truth. The beautiful art and philosophy was a thin veneer over the very normal, messy, and nasty realities.

Renaissance art invented highly realistic representation, so real that a painting might be mistaken for a window into reality. But this window is a fantasy, and Lee argues that, through it “the true character of the Renaissance becomes clear.”

Far from being an age of unalloyed wonder, it was a period of sex, scandal and suffering. Its cities were filled with depravity and inequality, its streets pullulated with prostitutes and perverted priests, and its houses played home to seduction, sickness, shady backroom deals, and conspiracies of every variety. Bending artists to their will, its foremost patrons were corrupt bankers yearning for power, murderous mercenary generals teetering on the edge of sanity, and irreligious popes hankering after money and influence. And it was and age in which other peoples and cultures were mercilessly raped, while anti-Semitism and Islamophobia reached fever pitch, and ever more insidious forms of bigotry and prejudice were developed to accommodate the discovery of new lands.” P. 352

Very ugly indeed.

Even though this history is well known, Lee’s insights give us some new understanding of where the art came from, the complex motives of the participants, and just how shallow the beauty actually was. The art isn’t less remarkable for this understanding, perhaps it is even more impressive. But we must not mistake the fantasies for reality, and recognize Renaissance dreams for the wishful thinking they really were.


  1. Alexander Lee, The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Vilence, and Depravity in an Age of Beauty, New York, Random House, 2013.


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