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About the book
  • Published: 3 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9781847925107
  • Imprint: Bodley Head
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $40.00

The Beauty and the Terror

An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance




A thrilling history of the unseen dark side of the Italian Renaissance

'Brilliant and gripping, here is the full true Renaissance in a history of compelling originality and freshness' SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE
The Italian Renaissance shaped western culture – but it was far stranger and darker than many of us realise.

We revere Leonardo da Vinci for his art but few now appreciate his ingenious designs for weaponry. We know the Mona Lisa for her smile but not that she was married to a slave-trader. We visit Florence to see Michelangelo's David but hear nothing of the massacre that forced the republic’s surrender. In focusing on the Medici in Florence and the Borgias in Rome, we miss the vital importance of the Genoese and Neapolitans, the courts of Urbino and Mantua. Rarely do we hear of the women writers, Jewish merchants, the mercenaries, engineers, prostitutes, farmers and citizens who lived the Renaissance every day.

In fact, many of the most celebrated artists and thinkers that have come to define the Renaissance – Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, Machiavelli and Castiglione – emerged not during the celebrated ‘rebirth’ of the fifteenth century but amidst the death and destruction of the sixteenth century. For decades, a series of savage wars dominated Italy’s political, economic and daily life, generating fortunes and new technologies, but also ravaging populations with famine, disease and slaughter. In this same short time, the birth of Protestantism, Spain’s colonisation of the Americas and the rise of the Ottoman Empire all posed grave threats to Italian power, while sparking debates about the ethics of government and enslavement, religious belief and sexual morality.

In The Beauty and the Terror, Catherine Fletcher provides an enrapturing narrative history that brings all of this and more into view. Brimming with life, it takes us closer than ever before to the lived reality of this astonishing era and its meaning for today.

  • Pub date: 3 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9781847925107
  • Imprint: Bodley Head
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $40.00

About the Author

Catherine Fletcher

Catherine Fletcher is a historian of Renaissance and early modern Europe. Her first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII, brought to life the world of the Papal court at the time of the Tudors. Subsequently, Catherine worked with the set team on the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, advising the production on the historical detail of religious ceremony, dress and furnishings. She broadcasts frequently for BBC Radio 4 on Italian Renaissance history and is currently a BBC New Generation Thinker. Catherine now holds the position of Associate Professor in History and Heritage at Swansea University, has previously held fellowships at the British School at Rome and the European University Institute, and has taught at Royal Holloway, Durham and Sheffield universities.

Also by Catherine Fletcher

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Praise for The Beauty and the Terror

“Terrifying and fascinating ... If you thought the Renaissance was all about beautiful pictures and the ‘rediscovery’ of Classical writing, you are quite wrong … The Beauty and the Terror dismantles our assumptions about the Renaissance with the precision of a wheellock arquebus … an ambitious, multifocal book, encompassing more than 150 years [that] shine[s] a light on figures often forgotten in conventional histories”

Mary Wellesley, Sunday Times

“Impressive and lucid … Fletcher’s narration excels in such colourful details … a scholarly, but vivid history that shows the impact that the machinations of the great, good and not so good had on the insignificant … a persuasive account of how Italy was brought low even as the culture floated high”

Michael Prodger, The Times

“Richly well-informed and admirably well-written, containing material of real interest on every page ... has added a wealth of information that will be new to most of us”

Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

“A story of alliances, betrayals, sacks, sieges, famines, assassinations and gruesomely ingenious tortures … Fletcher navigates this difficult terrain with great skill. She creates atmosphere and drama without any surrendering of clarity... A powerful book”

Charles Nicholl, Guardian

“Fletcher’s expertise is enviable … she knows better than anyone else just how treacherous a time and place it was. At its best, The Beauty and the Terror is as enlightening as you might hope: a chapter tracing early modern ambivalence about the rise of handguns … is exactly the alternative history you might wish for, as are the sections on slavery, sexual mores and pornography”

Tim Smith-Laing, Daily Telegraph

“[A] magnificent introduction to the history of the era … Fletcher’s book covers not just the wars and Renaissance art but also Italy’s political systems, courtly ceremonies, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic renewal, anti-Semitism, European colonialism, slavery, military techno­logies, early efforts at gun control, women’s poetry and even pornography … Fletcher shows how digging below the artistic and commercial riches of Renaissance Italy can reveal strong connections between culture, business, religion and violence”

Financial Times

“Brilliant and gripping, here is the full true Renaissance in a history of compelling originality and freshness, revealing the filth and thuggery, slavery, sex, slaughter and skulduggery behind the exquisite art of Leonardo and Michelangelo”

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE, author of Jerusalem and The Romanovs

“Leading us into the world of the high Italian Renaissance in all its rich, blood-soaked glory, Catherine Fletcher shows us how the violent energies of war gave birth to some of the greatest art ever seen. Devastating in its detail, The Beauty and the Terror is a powerful, intimate and deeply humane portrait of this age of extreme destruction and exceptional creativity”

THOMAS PENN, author of Winter King and Brothers York

“A wonderfully dark, gritty, hard-edged tour behind the scenes of the Italian Renaissance. Catherine Fletcher is an expert and eloquent guide through the fire, blood and steel that inspired some of the greatest art in the world”

JESSIE CHILDS, author of God’s Traitors

“Catherine Fletcher’s eye for the skewering detail makes the citizens of renaissance Florence live again”

Hilary Mantel, on The Black Prince of Florence

“Astonishing … gripping and original … a compelling portrait”

Financial Times on The Black Prince of Florence

“Packed with intrigue … Fletcher describes with cool menace the plotting and politicking … rought splendidly to life in this excellent book”

Dan Jones, Sunday Times on The Black Prince of Florence

“An approach that enables her to touch on many aspects of this complex time … Above all, it is the women who interest Fletcher, whether painters, poets, politicians or prostitutes … an absorbing read”

Mary Hollingsworth, Literary Review


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