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.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1 Michelangelo's Nose
One fine summer’s afternoon in 1491, the sixteen-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti was sitting sketching in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. With a stick of chalk between his fingers and a sheaf of paper on his knees, he was busy copying Masaccio’s celebrated frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel with “such judgement” that all those who saw his drawings were astonished.
Even as an adolescent, Michelangelo had begun to grow used to such admiration. Despite his youth, he had already earned a degree of celebrity and had acquired a correspondingly high opinion of himself. Carrying a letter of recommendation from the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, he had not only been accepted as a pupil of the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni at the artistic school that had recently been founded in the gardens of San Marco, but had even been welcomed into the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence’s de facto ruler. Enraptured by the young man, Lorenzo had ushered Michelangelo into the company of the city’s foremost intellectuals, including the humanists Angelo Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola. Michelangelo flourished. He nurtured those skills that were to characterize the art of the period. Studying anatomy with extreme care, he honed the naturalistic style that had been in continuous development since the innovations of Giotto di Bondone, two centuries earlier. And devoting himself to the emulation of classical sculpture, he set out on the path that later led Giorgio Vasari to claim that he had “surpassed and vanquished the ancients.” Following a suggestion made by Poliziano in this period, he carved a relief depicting the battle of the centaurs that was “so beautiful” it seemed to be “the work not of a young man, but of a great master with a wealth of study and experience behind him.”
Michelangelo’s fame and self-confidence were growing by the day, but as he was about to discover, so was the envy of his schoolfellows. Sitting next to him in the Brancacci Chapel that day was Pietro Torrigiano. Although three years older than Michelangelo, Pietro was another of Bertoldo di Giovanni’s pupils and was also recognized as something of a rising star. Competition between the two was almost inevitable. Under Bertoldo’s tutelage, they had been encouraged to compete, and they strove to outdo each other in imitating and surpassing the works of masters like Masaccio. Michelangelo was, however, too brilliant and outspoken for the rivalry to be entirely friendly.
As they sketched alongside one another in the chapel, Michelangelo and Pietro appear to have begun discussing who was better placed to take up Masaccio’s mantle as Florence’s finest painter. Given their sur- roundings, it was a natural subject. Despite being acclaimed as an artist of genius in his own lifetime, Masaccio had died before he could com- plete the frescoes in the chapel. His work had been completed by Filippino Lippi, although how successfully was a matter of personal opinion. Perhaps Michelangelo, who had spent many months studying the frescoes, observed that Lippi had been unable to match Masaccio’s talent and that he himself was the only person capable of attaining—if not exceeding—the master’s standards. He may simply have spoken derisively of Pietro’s sketches, as was apparently his habit. Whatever the case, Michelangelo managed to enrage his friend. Talented but hardly brilliant, Pietro couldn’t stand Michelangelo’s ribbing.
“Jealous [at] seeing him more honoured than himself and more able in his work,” Pietro began mocking Michelangelo. If his behavior in later years is anything to go by, Michelangelo might simply have laughed. Whatever the case, Pietro was furious. Clenching his fists, he punched Michelangelo squarely in the face. The blow was so hard that it “almost tore off the cartilage of [the] nose.” Michelangelo slumped unconscious to the floor, his nose “broken and crushed” and his torso covered with blood.
Michelangelo was hurriedly carried back to his home in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where he is said to have been lying “as if dead.” It did not take Lorenzo de’ Medici long to learn of his plight. Storming into the room in which his stricken protégé lay, he flew into a towering rage and hurled every imaginable insult at the “bestial” Pietro. At once, Pietro saw the magnitude of his mistake: he had no option but to leave Florence.
* * *
Unwittingly, the barely conscious Michelangelo was caught up in a moment that captured perfectly an important dimension of the world of late Renaissance art and that represented the fulfillment of what has become known as the “rise of the artist.” Although he was only sixteen years old, he had already begun to hone that unique combination of talents that contemporaries would later describe as “divine.” Skilled in sculpture and drawing, he was also devoted to Dante, learned in the Italian classics, a fine poet, and a friend to the finest humanist minds. Without any sense of irony intended, he was what we might now call a Renaissance man. What’s more, he was recognized as such. Despite his age, Michelangelo had been feted by Florence’s social and intellectual elite, and his ability had been honored with patronage and respect. The son of a comparatively modest bureaucrat from an obscure little town, he had earned the affection of the most powerful family in Florence because of his artistic skill. Lorenzo “the Magnificent”—himself a noted poet, connoisseur, and collector—treated him “like a son.” Indeed, Lorenzo’s son Giovanni and Giovanni’s illegitimate cousin Giulio—each of whom would later become pope (as Leo X and Clem- ent VII, respectively) —would address him as their “brother” ever after.
Two hundred years earlier, it would have been unthinkable for any artist to have been honored in such a way. In the eyes of most contemporaries, a late-thirteenth- or early-fourteenth-century artist was not a creator but a craftsman. The practitioner of a merely mechanical art, he was largely restricted to the confines of a provincial bottega (workshop) that was subject to the often draconian regulations of guilds.
Regardless of his ability, the artist’s social status was not high. Although some early Renaissance artists occasionally occupied positions in communal government or came from magnate families, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. Most came from fairly humble backgrounds, as can be gauged from how little we know about their parents. Later biographers, like the snobbish Vasari, often skip over such details, and their silence suggests that carpenters, innkeepers, farmers, and even unskilled laborers may have sired some of the great names of early Renaissance art. What evidence we have seems to confirm this impression. Some artists were from very modest backgrounds and came from families engaged in the lowliest crafts. Giotto di Bondone, for example, was rumored to have been raised as a poor shepherd boy but was most probably the son of a Florentine blacksmith. For others, art—like carpentry—was a family business. Three of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s sons became painters, and Simone Martini’s brother and two brothers-in-law were all artists.
From the mid-fourteenth century onward, however, the social world of art and the artist had gradually undergone a series of radical changes. In step with the growing popularity of classical themes and the naturalistic style, artists were progressively recognized as autonomous creative agents endowed with learning and skill that set them apart from mere mechanics. When Giotto was made capomaestro of the Duomo in 1334, the priors of Florence acknowledged not only his fame but also his “knowledge and learning,” terms that clearly distinguished the artist from mere craftsmen. Similarly, writing in his De origine civitatis Florentiae et eiusdem famosis civibus (ca. 1380–81), the Florentine chronicler Filippo Villani felt able to compare painters not with mere mechanics but with the masters of the liberal arts.
Although still reliant on the favor of patrons and bound by contractual agreements, painters and sculptors had seen their social position improve dramatically by the mid-fifteenth century. With art coming to be seen as a status symbol, artists themselves attained a higher status. Now it was not merely those from families of craftsmen who became artists. Although some continued to come from humble stock—such as Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506)—artists were increasingly the sons (and, in very rare cases, the daughters) of skilled tradesmen, affluent merchants, and well-educated notaries. Even those who could lay claim to noble origins—such as Michelangelo—could take up the brush or chisel without undue shame. Their social standing was measured not against their birth but against their ability. They could treat with their patrons on the basis of mutual respect, if not always with perfect equality. And their achievements could be celebrated by historians like Vasari in a manner previously reserved only for statesmen. Indeed, so high had artists risen that Pope Paul III is reported to have remarked that artists like Benvenuto Cellini (1500–71) should “not be subjected to the law.”
But if Michelangelo embodied both the stylistic transformations and the social changes that had come to characterize the art of the period, he also exemplified another important dimension of the life of the Renaissance artist. Though the “rise of the artist” had improved both the esteem in which the visual arts were held and the social status of artists, it had not elevated artists themselves to a higher and more refined plane of existence. Artists like Michelangelo still had feet of clay. He had, after all, just had his nose broken in a childish brawl prompted by envy and exacerbated by arrogant boasting.
It was typical of his life. Entirely at home in the reception rooms of the mighty, he could be kind, sensitive, courteous, and funny. But he was also proud, touchy, scornful, and sharp-tongued. He was a frequenter of inns and no stranger to fights. Indeed, despite being a friend to popes and princes, he was no refined gentleman. As his biographer Paolo Giovio recorded, he was notoriously slovenly in his appearance and seemed almost to rejoice in living in the most squalid conditions. Scarcely ever changing his clothes, he was constantly accompanied by the noxious smell of the unwashed and seldom, if ever, combed his hair or cut his beard. He was a man of undoubted piety, but his passionate nature inclined him toward relations with both sexes. Although he later enjoyed a long and apparently romantic relationship with Vittoria Colonna, marchesa of Pescara, his surviving poems also address homoerotic themes. One of the many poems addressed to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, for example, begins with a striking and faintly blasphemous verse:
Here in your lovely face I see, my lord,
what in this life no words could ever tell;
with that, although still clothed in flesh, my soul
has often already risen up to God.
As arrogant as he was talented, he was a dirty, disorganized, and tormented individual who was as easily embroiled in fights as he was bound to the will of popes, and as susceptible to Neoplatonic homoeroticism as he was to the reassurances of the Church and the blandish- ments of a cultured and elegant lady.
Michelangelo was not unusual in this respect. A devotee of illicit magic, Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomizing a well-known gigolo named Jacopo Saltarelli on April 9, 1476. Benvenuto Cellini was convicted of the same offense twice (in 1523 and 1557) and was only narrowly saved from a lengthy prison sentence thanks to the intervention of the Medici; on top of this, he killed at least two men and was also accused of stealing the papal jewels. So, too, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)—often described as the father of Renaissance humanism—fathered at least two children while in minor orders, and the music of the aristocratic composer Carlo Gesualdo reached its most sublime heights only after he had murdered his wife, her lover, and possibly also his son.
When its implications are unpacked, therefore, Michelangelo’s broken nose appears to present something of a challenge. Superficially, it seems difficult to reconcile the idea of Michelangelo as the paradigmatically “Renaissance” artist with the image of Michelangelo the cocky and arrogant kid fighting in church. There is no doubt that these represent two sides of the same man, but the question is, how should the peculiar and apparently contradictory nature of Michelangelo’s character be understood? How could the same personality create such innovative, elevated art and indulge such base habits? How, indeed, can Michelangelo’s broken nose be reconciled with familiar conceptions of the Renaissance itself?
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