HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: The Beauty and the Terror by Catherine Fletcher

The period between 1492–resonant for a number of reasons–and 1571, when the Ottoman navy was defeated in the Battle of Lepanto, embraces what we know as the Renaissance, one of the most dynamic and creatively explosive epochs in world history. Here is the period that gave rise to so many great artists and figures, and which by its connection to its classical heritage enabled a redefinition, even reinvention, of human potential. It was a moment both of violent struggle and great achievement, of Michelangelo and da Vinci as well as the Borgias and Machiavelli. At the hub of this cultural and intellectual ferment was Italy.

The Beauty and the Terror offers a vibrant history of Renaissance Italy and its crucial role in the emergence of the Western world. Drawing on a rich range of sources–letters, interrogation records, maps, artworks, and inventories–Catherine Fletcher explores both the explosion of artistic expression and years of bloody conflict between Spain and France, between Catholic and Protestant, between Christian and Muslim; in doing so, she presents a new way of witnessing the birth of the West.

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I absolutely jumped with glee when Fletcher released The Beauty and the Terror. One of my most favourite authors, producing books some of my favourite subjects, Alessandro de’ Medici and Gregorio Casali, and now an entire book on one of my favourite time periods, from the 1490s through the 16th century, the dramatic new world seen through the eyes of art.

This is a time period filled with people like Machiavelli, Savonarola, Borgia, Vespucci, Luther, the Medici, da Vinci, Columbus, the massive wars and invasions of Italy, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, the massive betrayals and battles for Florence, the League of Cambrai, not to mention the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the huge oppression and destruction of women.

Everyone knows the traditional story of the early Renaissance; art, thought, regeneration and invention ending the mediaeval period. But everyone knows that cannot possibly be the reality; the world wasn’t filled with visionary artists painting golden-haired girls in pretty dresses. War, poverty, intrigue, desperation, misery, disease – the reality was a bitter pill. This book suggests that the reality hasn’t been headlined as much as the idealised version of events, and to an extent, that’s true, particularly when it comes to the finer details of the horrid activities going on at the time. Why get into the politics of the Council of Trent when you can be beguiled by a Michelangelo painting?

The book also goes into how we know the famous portraits, sculptures, poems and books, but not the backstories – like how Mona Lisa is known for her smile but not that her husband used to purchase Moorish or African children each year to use as servants and God knows what else (I saw one review argue that didn’t make the man complicit in the slave trade, but that comment says more about the reviewer than the book). Another portrait mentioned is Titian’s Venus of Urbino of 1534 featuring Angela del Moro; a gorgeous piece of art, using the sitter’s previous real-life gang rape as an inspiration for a piece of beauty to behold. We love reading Machiavelli’s words but don’t pay much attention to the hideous rise of handguns; poets are celebrated for the creation of the prose we know today but they sit alongside the rise of pornography. Leonardo da Vinci could create things like a mechanical lion for King Francis, but the same calculations and designs were used in developing weapons responsible for widespread misery.

The Beauty and the Terror is remarkable in both its level of detail and its readability; it gives the names you know with all the details you might have missed. It also offers a wonderful thing – a woman’s voice to the subject, in a time where women were nothing but sexual objects and pawns, drawn to suffer or titillate and little in between. It lets their unknown voices peek out beyond the usual stone-cold portraits or nipple-laden fantasies of men.

Catherine Fletcher is a truly remarkable scholar and every book she produces is a work of art on its own. You don’t know the Renaissance until you’ve read The Beauty and the Terror.

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