The Beauty and the Terror: The Italian Renaissance and the Rise of the West

Written by Catherine Fletcher
Review by Jean Huets

The Beauty and the Terror captures, in increments of topical chapters, a place and time whose global influence—economic, religious, political, and artistic—still looms gigantic today: Italy during the late-15th to mid-16th centuries.

War, art, religious upheaval, and political and economic maneuvers make the framework of Fletcher’s book, but at its heart are the people who competed to wrest glory from their extraordinary milieu. The account meanders, without getting lost, through the dreams and schemes of men and women so wildly eccentric, so brutally calculating, so greedy for power and wealth, so charismatic and deluded—or perhaps divinely inspired, and so gifted with artistic, intellectual, and political prowess, they border on mythical.

Fletcher’s research goes deep and wide, while (usually, not always) avoiding the dry swarms of details and boring list-like chronicles that mar many works of history. Still, The Beauty and the Terror is by no means the Italian Renaissance for idiots or dummies. This is not to say the book is only for experts or academics. It does help, though, if you’re familiar with the book’s many figures, places, major events, and political entities. Put another way, if you’ve got the dots, The Beauty and the Terror will connect them with a convincing and absorbing series of essays that almost makes sense of a historical period that, in the end, is simply too intense and complex to make sense.