Breaking the Renaissance Myth

Breaking the Renaissance Myth
AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito, File

Culture and the universal genius were not the only things to thrive in this supposed golden age â?" so too did slavery and warfare

We still use the word “medieval” as a term of opprobrium: all sorts of things, from Islamist terrorism to faulty plumbing, are described as such when we want to signal a range of negative aspects. Something “medieval” is archaic, life-denying, sub-rational, obstinately ill-informed or incompetent, and so on. And by contrast, “renaissance” is usually a sunnier word. It evokes exuberance and creativity, intellectual freshness. A “renaissance man” (and it usually is a man) is someone endowed with an almost superhuman galaxy of qualities and skills.

As many scholars have pointed out, this odd bit of chronological snobbery is largely a 19th-century creation, from the days when the Renaissance was seen as the precursor of the Age of Reason, the moment somewhere around the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century which saw the beginnings of Western civilisation’s liberation from dogma and bigotry. It is not news for historians that the story is more complex than this – or that it was also a period (particularly in Italy) of ceaseless and destructive warfare.

The publishers of Catherine Fletcher’s book have described it as an “alternative history of the Italian Renaissance”, but it is in fact a finely-written, engaging and clear essay in rather straightforward narrative history. It is none the worse for that, but is it really the case that we have failed to notice the “stranger and darker” side of Italian politics in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as they suggest?

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