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

Written by Catherine Fletcher
Review by Charlotte Wightwick

Catherine Fletcher opens up the ‘Pandora’s Box’ of 16th-century Italy. This era is known most obviously for the flowering of individual artistic genius – Leonardo, Raphael, Titian and the other greats of the Renaissance.

Fletcher shows us the tumultuous context in which these artists flourished. Italy was war-torn for most of the century, initially as European power struggles played out across her city-states; later, as the Ottoman Empire came to the fore. But it wasn’t just war driving change: new continents were being discovered and explored, with Italians at the forefront of colonialism and trading opportunities in the East and West. And at home, technology, science and religion were all changing at dizzying speeds.

Fletcher documents this time of extreme change with a whirlwind tour of its martial, political, religious, social and sexual politics. Her fascinating account explores how the splendour of 16th-century Italy was built at least in part from war, slavery and oppression. One of Fletcher’s central ideas is that we have been so taken by the 19th-century concept of the Renaissance as a time of great beauty, that we have forgotten its terrors. This book does not seek to negate the beauty, but it does look to redress the balance.