The Beauty and the Terror: the dark history of the Renaissance

New book shines a different light on the period, from da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to war-torn Florence

Professor Fletcher takes readers closer than ever before to the lived reality of the era of Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa

Professor Fletcher takes readers closer than ever before to the lived reality of the era of Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa

The dark side of the Italian Renaissance is exposed in a new book by a University historian.

Professor Catherine Fletcher’s The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance sheds new light on the death and destruction which dominated sixteenth century Italy – a period which has shaped western culture.

The book explores how we revere Leonardo da Vinci for his art, but few appreciate his ingenious designs for weaponry, while we may know the Mona Lisa for her smile but not that she was married to a slave-trader. Meanwhile Florence, where tourists flock to see Michelangelo’s David, was the focus of a series of brutal conflicts that eventually forced the republic’s surrender.

In telling these stories, and those of the women writers, Jewish merchants, mercenaries, engineers, prostitutes, farmers and citizens who lived the Renaissance every day, Professor Fletcher takes readers closer than ever before to the lived reality of this astonishing era and its contemporary significance.

Professor Fletcher, who joined Manchester Metropolitan this year as a historian of Renaissance and early modern Europe, said: “The art of Renaissance Italy is glorious, but I know from experience that as a tourist it’s easy to miss the dramatic stories behind the paintings that now hang in art galleries, not to mention their wider global connections. I hope the book will offer readers a new perspective on works they thought they knew.”

The Beauty and the Terror was released on March 5, with a special Manchester launch following on March 10. Professor Fletcher will be promoting her new work at a number of literary and history festivals throughout the year.

The book has already been praised, with the Times hailing a “scholarly, but vivid history that shows the impact that the machinations of the great, good and not so good had on the insignificant”.

The art of Renaissance Italy is glorious, but I know from experience that as a tourist it’s easy to miss the dramatic stories behind the paintings that now hang in art galleries, not to mention their wider global connections.

Professor Fletcher’s previous books include The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de' Medici and The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story. She broadcasts regularly for the BBC.

Glowing reviews for The Black Prince of Florence included that of two-time Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel, who noted Professor Fletcher’s “eye for the skewering detail makes the citizens of Renaissance Florence live again”.

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