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The Beauty and the Terror: An alternative history of the Italian Renaissance, by Catherine Fletcher

20 November 2020

Nicholas Cranfield on a Renaissance study

FOR the cover of her latest forensic history book, Professor Catherine Fletcher has chosen a detail of Titian’s ceiling painting from the abbey of Santo Spirito in Isola which depicts Cain bludgeoning his brother. Dated to the 1540s, it was one of three commissioned paintings of biblical violence.

It is a more than apt choice for Fletcher’s sprawling narrative history of the Italian peninsula from the end of the 15th century to the 1570s, with all its underbelly of ferocity and viciousness. This is certainly not the Italy that inspired the Pre-Raphaelites with cosmetic beauty and ostentatious luxury.

Rather, the historian leads us, in 26 chapters (with a really useful and wide-ranging bibliography), away from the Italy of ice cream and Botticelli, of Columbus and Cabot, to examine both the sources for the new wealth that came, with slaves, from the New World, and to explore the less well-known courts and cities, the migrant populations, and the invention of firearms and of pornography.

While she can never quite get away from the dominance of Rome, Venice, and Florence, she will introduce many to the histories of Genoa, with its one time reach from Phocaea to Cyprus, of Lucca, of Ferrara, and other city states and principalities. It is often difficult to tell who is and who is not an important figure.

A more diligent copy editor might have made some of this easier to read; in one paragraph, we are twice told the age of Francis I in 1515 when he conquered northern Italy; and the Stradiots are explained more than once, as the Balkan cavalry serving Venice as mercenaries.

Her claim that what she calls “the Christian Host” is “the receptacle holding the bread and wine that in Christian tradition symbolise or indeed literally embody the body and blood of Christ” is simply wrong and unhelpful in a book about the period when the very nature of the eucharistic sacrifice split Europe.

Occasionally, we get some name-checking and virtue-signalling. It comes as a surprise that Thomas Cromwell features as “perhaps [its] most famous example” of an English mercenary serving in Italy. True, he fought there long before he entered the service of Henry VIII, but, in comparison with the likes of the earlier Sir John Hawkwood (c.1323-194), that part of his career is a footnote in any history, whether of England or of Italy. “Slave-trading” appears, but a more nuanced account of service and of colonialisation is needed.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


The Beauty and the Terror: An alternative history of the Italian Renaissance
Catherine Fletcher
Bodley Head £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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