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The Ugly Renaissance
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The Ugly Renaissance

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Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit. In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the best-known artworks of the Renaissance.… (mais)
Título:The Ugly Renaissance
Informação:Arrow Books Ltd
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The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty por Alexander Lee

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I found this a tough read. The title and cover blurb suggest a quirky coverage of some more unusual aspects of the renaissance period, but the book is actually more of a detailed scholarly review of the times. The author jumps around over the period of the renaissance to demonstrate particular points, but this lay reader lacked the background knowledge to put this info into context.
But there were also parts where I wanted more information. The book touches on the rise of the Florentine bankers, with the Europe-wide network of branches, but doesn't explain why this happened at this time and not earlier, not does it go into any detail as to how the banks operated, moved money safely etc.
In the end, I struggled.
Read, March 2018 ( )
  mbmackay | Apr 2, 2018 |
Author Alexander Lee is a history professor at Oxford; his theme is illustrating the contrast between the glories of Italian Renaissance art and the unpleasantness of Italian Renaissance life. Mostly enlightening; sometimes skating the thin edge of political correctness, and sometimes a trifle meandering.

Lee focuses on Florence. Nominally a republic, for most of the period Florence was actually an oligarchy controlled by the guilds and/or the Medici family. If you’re not familiar with the guild system, they were a common feature of medieval and Renaissance economics; a guild was sort of a cross between a trade union and a cartel. You couldn’t practice a profession – furniture maker, for example – unless you belonged to the appropriate guild. You started out as an apprentice; essentially a slave laborer in a master’s shop. If your work was sufficiently adequate and your nose was sufficiently brown, you could step up to being a journeyman; a journeyman was no longer tied to a particular master; he could go to work for another master if he wanted (and his current master was agreeable, since he had to have a journeyman’s certificate to leave). However, a journeyman could not set up a shop of his own. After some time as a journeyman, accumulation of sufficient cash to pay the admission fee, and submission and acceptance of a particularly good piece of work – a “masterpiece” – the journeyman could qualify as a master and set up on his own. Obviously, the guilds had considerable economic power; they could set prices and wages and punish anyone who deviated – this was codified as law in Florence and other places where guilds prospered. (On the positive side, the guilds also guaranteed quality of work; if the type of work was appropriate – gold jewelry or plate, for example – it could be taken to the guild hall and stamped with a quality symbol – a “hallmark”).

The nominal head of government in Florence was the gonfaloniere di giustizia – the “flagbearer of justice”. He was assisted by eight priors, plus assorted civil servants, who collectively made up the executive branch – the Signoria. The gonfaloniere and the priors were selected for two month terms. Selection to the positions was by lot; the names were drawn out of the bag. That sounds democratic enough, but it was how the names got into the bag that would have made a Chicago politician envious. The guilds met and selected candidates who were “deserving”; although the potential pool of candidates – every enfranchised man in Florence, somewhere between five and six thousand – was fairly large, somehow the same names were always drawn. There was also a “legislative” branch, the Consiglio Maggiore; however it could only vote on legislation proposed by the Signoria and was not allowed to debate. There were a couple of popular revolts against the system, once when the preacher Giralamo Savonarola created a sort of private holy army and tried to set up a theocratic state, and once when political opponents of Cosimo de’ Medici briefly pulled off a coup, but neither lasted.

The Medici family is always associated with Renaissance Florence but very seldom actually held any sort of political office, preferring to work “behind the scenes” – presumably by deciding whose names went into the bag. This was facilitated by their staggering wealth; after relatively modest beginnings the family had maneuvered into being appointed the official bankers of the Papacy in 1420 (mostly by playing popes and antipopes against each other, with the implied threat of having the pope and antipope come into contact and explode). Their popularity as bankers, in turn, was a result of their invention or at least popularization of international banking. Lee notes there were hundreds of national currencies in circulation and nobody could keep up with exchange rates; plus having to carry substantial quantities of gold or silver around was a severe handicap for anybody who wanted to do international business (in this context, note that during the Renaissance there were 20-30 national boundaries in Italy alone). The Medici bank founded branches all over Europe – by 1435, Ancona, Avignon, Basel, Bruges, London, Geneva, and Pisa – and invented (or at least popularized) the bill of exchange and the letter of credit, freeing merchants from hauling bullion; they were happy to pay the Medici bank a small commission for the privilege. The small commissions added up; although acknowledging that detailed economic information is hard to come by, Cosimo de’ Medici is estimated to have made a personal profit of 203,702 florins between 1435 and 1450. A florin contained 3.536 grams of gold; at the time Lee was writing that gave the florin a bullion value of around $180. The purchasing power was about $493. That gave Cosimo an annual profit of $6.7 M. Note that’s his profit, not his income or assets. The Florentine taxation system was based on property ownership; the Medici family cleverly kept their money out of land acquisition and therefore didn’t have to pay a lot of taxes. At one point Cosimo was exiled from the city by a “reform” coup; he simply refused to loan the city any money and he was eventually welcomed back with an apology.

Lee connects a lot of Renaissance artwork with bankers like the Medici trying to save their souls. The Church was heavily opposed to usury, but, of course, you could buy your way out of Purgatory with suitable donations. Sometimes these were monetary, but artistic endowments were acceptable as well. The use of art for salvation also extended to the military; the Italian city states were perpetually at war and were not particularly squeamish about how they went about it. Sir John Hawkwood, a English knight widely praised as one of the most honorable and courteous mercenary captains, was noted for only massacring 5000 Italian civilians during his career. The less humane included men like Frederico da Montefeltro, who was so paranoid that after losing his right eye in combat he had a notch cut in his nose so he could see someone trying to approach his “blind” side, and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, who (according to Pope Pius II) raped both his daughters and both his sons-in-law, poisoned both his wives, and broke faith with everyone who hired him as a soldier. Both da Montefeltro and Malatesta commissioned artworks showing them in pious poses.

The Florentine attitude toward sex was typical for the time. Prostitution was tolerated but controlled; homosexuality was as well, as long as it was discrete. Lee claims that there is evidence that some homosexual unions were formalized by the Church; however he also notes the city had a “vice squad” specifically established to crack down on gays, especially when Florence was doing poorly in its perpetual wars with Milan. Attitudes toward other minorities similarly fluctuated; there was a thriving Jewish community through most of the Renaissance but persecution ramped up when the city needed money. Blacks were rare but known; it was an ostentatious sign of wealth to have a black slave. A lot of hatred was directed against Islam; Lee notes, with a slightly puzzled tone, that even merchants who had traveled in Mamluk or Ottoman territory, and therefore presumably knew that most of the accusations were slander, were just as prolific in invective as everybody else.

Lee closes with sort of an apology, noting that the injustices and ugliness of the Renaissance are still with us but arguing that our time has not made up for it by creating equivalent art and beauty. He seems sincere enough.

An extensive bibliography. Well referenced but by page number only so you have to thumb through the reference list if you suspect there might be more information. Illustrated with contemporary paintings which are all relevant to and covered by the text. The index seems sparse and I had trouble looking up things I remembered. A handy genealogy for the Medici and a list of Renaissance popes. No maps but there isn’t a lot of geographic information so I didn’t miss them. I would have benefited by a chronological table; Lee tends to bounce all over the Renaissance – from about the middle of the 13th century to the middle of the 16th - when trying to illustrate a particular point. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 30, 2017 |
Saggio piacevolissimo con illustrazioni a colori dei quadri descritti. Cito un brano dell'epilogo particolarmente eloquente e che mi pare riassuma bene il senso del libro: "Per quanto terribile sia oggi la vita, è essenziale non farsi sedurre dall'idea che le sofferenze materiali siano una ragione per rassegnarsi alla mediocrità culturale, alla volgarità trionfante, alla rinuncia a ogni ideale. È vero l'esatto contrario: più buia è la notte, più si deve fervidamente aspirare alla chiara luce dell'alba, apportatrice di bellezza e meraviglia." Il Rinascimento (come del resto il mondo odierno) è stato un'epoca di brutture, sfruttamento, violenza, crudeltà e disparità. Secondo l'autore i capolavori concepiti in quell'epoca sono tanto più favolosi poiché sono figli di tempi bui. ( )
  zinf | Nov 20, 2017 |
“Its cities were filled with depravity and inequality, its streets thronged with prostitutes and perverted priests, and its houses played home to seduction, sickness, shady back-room deals, and conspiracies of every variety. Bending artists to their will, its foremost patrons were corrupt bankers yearning for power, murderous mercenary generals teetering on the edge of sanity, and irreligious Popes hankering after money and influence. And it was an age in which other peoples and cultures were mercilessly raped, while anti-Semitism and Islamophobia reached fever-pitch and even more insidious forms of bigotry and prejudice were developed to accommodate the discovery of new lands………a very ugly Renaissance indeed.”

Alexander Lee sets out to debunk a popular view of the Italian Renaissance: that it was a sort of rebirth from the dark ages of medievalism and because it is represented to us by endless reproductions of its paintings, sculpture and architecture, has lodged in our minds as a ‘golden age’. The evidence of the artistic achievements have survived and tourists flock to Florence and Rome to see and hear about the great works of art and it is no great leap to assume that so many artistic masterpieces must have been made during an age of enlightenment. He admits there has been much written about the social and economic history, but this has not permeated through in ways that provide a more balanced view. Lee sometimes gets carried away with his condemnation of the society (see the above paragraph) but can be forgiven because of his stated aims of redressing the balance and his attempts to write a more accessible story of the period.

He has some interesting things to say and for the most part says them very well. The first part concentrates on the life of the artists and his first choice is Michelangelo. He imagines a walk through Florence that the artist must have taken when he made the journey from his home to where he had set up his studio to carve his statue of David. He describes the things he might have seen along the way and it serves to place the reader in the world of a thriving sixteenth century city. He does not spare Michelangelo himself, pointing out that he was as arrogant as he was talented, he was dirty and disorganised and as easily embroiled in fights as he was susceptible to be bullied by the Pope. However by placing the artist in his milieu, by describing his daily chores and the vicissitudes of a busy workshop environment, it is not difficult to imagine Michelangelo as a man rather than just an iconic artist. It could be argued that Georgio Vasari in his [The Lives of the artists] had done something similar at the time and Lee does mine that book for anecdotes, but Vasari was writing for an audience that would have been all to aware of the conditions under which Michelangelo worked. Lee takes his views further and while not taking the reader too far down the path of Michelangelo’s sexuality; scandalous or not, he makes some interesting observations about the combination of spiritual and sensual pleasures.

Part II describes the World of the Renaissance patron, those people that commissioned the great works of art. There is a thorough examination of the mercantile class, the bankers and the emergence of a capitalist economy based on greed and a hankering after raw power. Money ruled most of the thoughts and actions of leading Florentine families. The Medici’s were bankers who thrived in a world where money ruled and as Lee points out little has changed since the Renaissance. The Popes were of course major players intent on keeping for themselves and their families one of the richest prizes in Christendom. They were also in effect war lords some riding into battle, others hiring Condottieri (mercenaries) to do their bidding. Lee gets further than most writers in examining this link between money, power and art. There was a need to make a splash to demonstrate power in impressive architecture, but equally there was a need to ‘save their souls’ with dedications and religious works that somehow expressed a humility. This can be seen in some of the paintings and frescoes and Lee uses these to make his points.

Part III looks at The Renaissance and the World. It certainly debunks any thoughts that people might have that the period was one of tolerance and understanding. It was an age of exploitation and rapine and Lee gives examples of how the Florentines viewed the world outside. This should come as no surprise, but stacking it all up in chapter after chapter does bring this home to the reader. Florentines in particular tended to look askance at the godless world outside of their city and generally were only interested if there was money in it. Being an inland city there was no natural maritime expertise, but one still wonders why there was so little interest in the New World discoveries. Lee’s short answer is that they saw no monetary gain.

Alexander Lee is conscious that he is writing a book that may attract the more general and curious reader and there are many stories and anecdotes about sex, power plays and atrocities, most of which are backed up by documentary evidence and Lee is careful not to overstep the bounds into sensationalism. He uses conjecture lightly and while he is relentless in making his points one has sympathy with his aims of debunking myths. After all, as he says the real wonder is that such great art could come from such a corrupt society.

Lee treads a difficult line between writing a popular exposé and a thoughtful and well documented history of the period. I think on the whole he is successful; there are copious notes of sources, a well thought through bibliography and appendices and illustrations that he uses wisely to help the reader and to make his points. When you pick up a book with a subtitle of ‘Sex, greed violence and depravity in an age of Beauty” you may not be too sure of what you will find beneath the cover. In this case you will find plenty of examples of excesses, but they will be couched in some thoughtful and at times wordy prose. I enjoyed the read and found much to think about and so 4 stars. ( )
1 vote baswood | Jan 2, 2016 |
A fascinating and counterintuitive portrait of the sordid, hidden world behind the dazzling artwork of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and more

Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit.
In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the period’s best-known artworks. Rife with tales of scheming bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, bloody rivalries, vicious intolerance, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess, this gripping exploration of the underbelly of Renaissance Italy shows that, far from being the product of high-minded ideals, the sublime monuments of the Renaissance were created by flawed and tormented artists who lived in an ever-expanding world of inequality, dark sexuality, bigotry, and hatred.
The Ugly Renaissance is a delightfully debauched journey through the surprising contradictions of Italy’s past and shows that were it not for the profusion of depravity and degradation, history’s greatest masterpieces might never have come into being.

From the Hardcover edition.


Lee...lays bare the base tendencies and avaricious impulses that undergirded much of the Renaissance's artistic splendor.... Focusing progressively on the lived experiences of the period's artists, the designs of their patrons and the broader political tendencies reshaping the continent, Lee provides an entertaining frolic buttressed by serious scholarship.... An illuminating look at how the flowering of human imagination celebrated in the Renaissance was fertilized by the excesses of human nature.

*-- Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

ALEXANDER LEE is a Stipendiary Lecturer in Early Modern History at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. A prize-winning specialist in the history of the Italian Renaissance, he holds degrees from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, and is the author of numerous academic works on the Renaissance.
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Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit. In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the best-known artworks of the Renaissance.

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