Reviews

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

Written by Melissa Kane. Examining the recent work by acclaimed Renaissance scholar Catherine Fletcher, 'The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance', Melissa Kane questions. the extent to which it rightly can be called an alternative history.

Professor Catherine Fletcher, historian of the Renaissance and Early Modern European History and author of The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Allesandro de’ Medici, Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome, and Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador, describes her most recent release as a study on a ‘period of history [likened to] Pandora’s Box, which even as it released all sorts of evils into the world, also preserved the possibility of hope’. The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance, is a deep-dive into the late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth century European peninsula that incorporates a whole manner of events, triumphs, tribunals, and arguments into an encyclopaedic evaluation of the period, and aims not only to spark the traditional ideologies and historiographic frameworks, but also to bring in new fields of view that are often left unresolved and overlooked.  

At the centre of Fletcher’s work, owing to her promise of an ‘alternative’ history, is primarily the context of her own work and the social, religious, and political surroundings that sparked, supported, and hindered the artistic movement as we understand it today. Fletcher beautifully recreates the world of the sixteenth century for her readers, creating a structure that allows an appreciation of the complexity of the web-like relationships and tensions that connected Early Modern Europe. From Popes, to Kings, Priests, and Princes, Fletcher easily relates the interconnectivity of political and religious society to her readers to show how one decision (or death) emits a sphere of change and a ripple of tension. However, the most interesting and inviting aspect of Fletcher’s innovative work its inclusion of voices that are often forgotten to explore questions such as ‘did women have a renaissance?’ (building on the questions of feminist scholar Joan Kelly), as well as the impact of ghettoization for Jewish communities, and discussions of queer relationships.  

For the most part, this is perfectly done, and acts as a pure example of an introduction to the period. Fletcher portrays complex events such as the Sack of Rome and the notorious Italian Wars with ease in a way which does not intimidate the reader but rather invites them into the world in which the Renaissance flourishes to understand how and why it does. Throughout her work, we see how the role of prominent families, including the infamous Medici and Borgia clans, reach out across Europe to inspire events, arts, and ideas that we associate with the period, bringing faces to the names that inspire our histories. Although the title appears to suggest a focus on Italy in her work, one of the key successes of The Beauty and the Terror is its ability to move out of this restrictive sphere and create a wider contextual structure for its reader, including how events in Spain, England, Hungary, and even the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires inspired the work of the great Italian maestros. 

Some reviewers, however, have vented a degree of frustration at Fletcher’s title in an ‘alternative’ history to argue that the work takes on a traditional format i.e., focusing on the large events of the time, and consequently, the prominence of (white) male power. Although, indeed, I do feel it necessary to support this claim and state that much more space could have been dedicated to the voices outside of these conventional and established histories, particularly those of queer individuals and minority racial groups, I also believe that the title of ‘alternative’ is indeed well-founded. In my reading, Fletcher aims to place the context of the Renaissance ahead of its ideas and products, and within this can branch to a degree of ‘alternative’ voices. Unlike traditional teachings, she takes the less obvious route, focusing on the wider setting of Europe during a tumultuous time to understand the Renaissance rather than to see the context surrounding it.  

In this manner, therefore, it can be considered whether this is indeed a ‘successful’ history of the Renaissance in taking on this alternative angle to the period as, although sublime in its contextual construction, it fails to truly render the impact of these social, religious, and political events in the images we usually associate with this period of classical re-innovation. There are certain chapters dedicated to providing these assets to the work, but these are often created in absence of their context, not incurring truly until halfway through and with little discussion as to how they feed and weave together, feeling few and far between in a book that markets itself on such a premise.  

Overall, Fletcher’s work is an inviting, nuanced, and indeed ‘alternative’ analysis of the events that scarred the late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth century, to create an all-encompassing contextual work of the Italian Renaissance. It is the perfect introduction to period, providing a powerful and gripping rendition of events for both an academic and an amateur audience.  

Written by Melissa Kane 

Reviewed work:

Flethcer, Catherine, The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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