Noel Malcolm reviews The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance by Catherine Fletcher
The Chinese proverb says: “When you go for a ride on a tiger, it’s hard to get off.” Sixteenth-century Italians would have understood that very well. Inviting powerful neighbouring states into your area to attack your enemies is one thing; but, as they discovered, getting rid of such mighty allies is quite another.
It all started in 1494, when the ruler of Milan, quarrelling with the King of Naples, invited Charles VIII of France to invade Italy and seize the Neapolitan throne. Within a few months, Charles had led an army all the way down the peninsula and entered the city of Naples; a few months later he marched rapidly back again, fighting against an ad hoc alliance of anti-French forces on his way.
This Duke-of-Yorkish episode may seem inconsequential, but in fact the long-term consequences were dire. The French became obsessed with gaining territories in Italy – soon they would gobble up the dukedom of Milan itself. For the smaller Italian powers, such as Venice and the Papal States, aggressive power-politics became the new normal, with military alliances chopping and changing unpredictably. And when, a little later, a superpower rivalry developed between France and the Habsburgs, much of the fighting took place on Italian soil.
The tally is dismal: the Sack of Florence (1512), the Sack of Genoa (1522), the Sack of Rome (1527)… Usually it was Spanish soldiers, serving the Habsburgs, that did the worst damage, but in the Sack of Rome they competed with German colleagues fired up with Lutheran zeal against the Papacy. When you read about the unification of Italy in the 19th century, and the emotions it stirred in the breasts of patriotic Italians, remember that they were not just thinking about having been ruled by foreigners over the centuries. They were thinking about having been murdered by them too.
Catherine Fletcher’s new book is not a straight history of these Italian wars, which lasted for nearly seven decades. They form the connecting narrative here, and she tells it well, interweaving the policies of the grand ruling families (Medici, Sforza, d’Este) and the stories of corrupt and dictatorial popes. The subtitle of her book, however, is “An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance”: the point of highlighting all those battles and sieges is to provide a backdrop for the culture of the High Renaissance, making us think about it in a new way.
As she puts it in her opening chapter, the popular story of the Renaissance “tends to focus on the genius and glory at the expense of the atrocities”; we should think more about “the brutal realities behind Renaissance works of art”. Do people realise that Leonardo made ingenious designs for weaponry, that Michelangelo got involved in military engineering, or that Machiavelli was caught up in real, lethal politics, not just writing “timeless aphorisms”?
My answer would be “yes”, so long as people have read at least something about those three. And if they have read Benvenuto Cellini’s marvellous autobiography, long available in paperback, they will know a lot about the Sack of Rome too. There are moments when Fletcher seems to be catering for readers whose entire knowledge of the period derives from having seen one episode of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in 1969.
But, to be fair, she has also added a wealth of information that will be new to most of us. I was not aware that Francesco del Giocondo, husband of Mona Lisa, was probably a slave-dealer (though the evidence for this is relatively benign: he was getting his slaves baptised, which most hard-nosed dealers never bothered to do). And she writes fascinatingly about the development of hand-guns, especially in the little town of Brescia, where in the 1520s Bartolomeo Beretta founded the company which still bears his name. It is nice to know that, as a scandalised official complained, even the women were strolling through the streets of Brescia with pistols tucked into their girdles.
Women get special attention in this book; here readers benefit from the fruits of recent scholarship, which has rescued, for example, several talented female authors from centuries of neglect. The role played in politics by powerful women such as Isabella d’Este is emphasised, and in a discussion of “sex workers” (which quotes one Renaissance writer saying that visitors to Rome wanted to visit “not only the antiquities but also the modernities, that is, the ladies”) we read about the life of luxury led by rich courtesans.
For this is not, in the end, a radical “alternative” history of the Renaissance at all. Women are noticed mostly when they are rich, powerful or well-educated. Peasants, who made up the great bulk of the population, hardly get a look-in, except when they are enlisted as cannon-fodder. The emphasis on warfare takes us back to a very traditional kind of history, involving popes and princes. The cultural history, too, is concentrated in courts. And the cultural stars highlighted here are exactly the ones you would expect: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo.
But if the book is more old-fashioned than the author seems to believe, that is no bad thing, as it has all the old-fashioned virtues: it is richly well-informed and admirably well-written, containing material of real interest on every page. That sort of history book is good enough for me. Better, dare I say it, than the alternative.
The Beauty and the Terror is published by Bodley Head at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop