Alexander Lee’s ‘The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Disease and Excess in an Age of Beauty’

Our writer Timothy Romain takes a closer look at some of the 'Beautiful' artworks of the Renaissance and it's hidden messages

Far from being concealed from the historians of today marks of intolerance are displayed in plain sight, at least for those who know what to look for.
The Renaissance was an era in which the aesthetic tradition permeated through to the arts, but the beauty of the artefacts that survive do not mirror the society that they were created in. Far from being concealed from the historians of today marks of intolerance are displayed in plain sight, at least for those who know what to look for. The Sistine Chapel Painting for example, with its portrayal of stories from both the Old and New Testaments could be seen as a celebration of the religious history shared by Judaism and Christianity; if only it weren't for the depiction of a sour looking Amminadab painted in the corner that betrays a less tolerant attitude: On his shirt sleeve is a golden circle - the legal label that marked out Jewishness at the time. His inclusion in the fresco was a sign of exclusion for those who only subscribed to the first half of the painted testament. It offers a glimpse of the prejudice prevalent in the age of ‘beauty’.

amminadab

Deciphering such ugliness behind art is the theme of Alexander Lee’s new book, and was the subject of his talk given as part of the Book to the Future festival last Saturday. Concentrating on anti-Semitism in his presentation, he used other artworks to further illustrate the extreme prejudices of the age and told a chillingly familiar tale of denouncements, book burnings, public humiliations, scapegoating all followed by legal demarcations and restrictions. Yet northern Italy was considered a relative safe haven for the Jewish people at the time. He told the story of Salamone, a man who had his livelihood stolen from him by the Florentine courts in a scandal that pre-echoed the Dreyfus Affair of late 19th century France. He also showed the darker side of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Presentation at the Temple revealed in the Virgin Mary’s earrings.

Both Lee’s knowledge and passion are inexhaustible, his clear enthusiasm shining through in his divergence from the pre-prepared text and the questions he answered at the end. The presentation was fascinating despite its lack of sex, disease and excess as advertised in the title and gave a wise warning against the deceptive charms of beautiful art.

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Stuart Found

Stuart is the Online Arts Editor for the Redbrick student newspaper. He has also written two plays, the first of which was performed at the Guild of Students in Spring 2013, and has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the International Dance Festival Birmingham in 2012.



Published

2nd November 2013 at 5:30 pm

Last Updated

6th November 2013 at 6:01 pm



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