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Historian Alexander Lee gives a fine, thematic, popular history of the Renaissance in Italy and focuses on its truer, grittier aspects. We tend to think of the Renaissance by its art and architecture, and think it was this noble time of truth and beauty and art and modern thinking and ideas, etc., with a tad bit of crazy, lusty Medicis and sinning popes thrown in for good measure. In fact, the time was one of great disparities in wealth, culture, living conditions, values, etc. And though there are glimmers of modernity in the Renaissance, there are aspects of medieval times too. Backstabbing politics, pecuniary prelates, racism, bigotry, warfare, squalidity, etc. Along with all the good cultural produce we got from the Renaissance, the times were hard for many and nasty. Ugly.

A good book, with some good images, though there could have been far more. The writing style is engaging enough, though a tad dry here and there. I learned a lot and enjoyed it. Good endnotes, bibliography, and index.
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tuckerresearch | 5 andre anmeldelser | Jan 8, 2020 |
I found this a tough read. The title and cover blurb suggest a quirky coverage of some more unusual aspects of the renaissance period, but the book is actually more of a detailed scholarly review of the times. The author jumps around over the period of the renaissance to demonstrate particular points, but this lay reader lacked the background knowledge to put this info into context.
But there were also parts where I wanted more information. The book touches on the rise of the Florentine bankers, with the Europe-wide network of branches, but doesn't explain why this happened at this time and not earlier, not does it go into any detail as to how the banks operated, moved money safely etc.
In the end, I struggled.
Read, March 2018
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mbmackay | 5 andre anmeldelser | Apr 2, 2018 |
Author Alexander Lee is a history professor at Oxford; his theme is illustrating the contrast between the glories of Italian Renaissance art and the unpleasantness of Italian Renaissance life. Mostly enlightening; sometimes skating the thin edge of political correctness, and sometimes a trifle meandering.

Lee focuses on Florence. Nominally a republic, for most of the period Florence was actually an oligarchy controlled by the guilds and/or the Medici family. If you’re not familiar with the guild system, they were a common feature of medieval and Renaissance economics; a guild was sort of a cross between a trade union and a cartel. You couldn’t practice a profession – furniture maker, for example – unless you belonged to the appropriate guild. You started out as an apprentice; essentially a slave laborer in a master’s shop. If your work was sufficiently adequate and your nose was sufficiently brown, you could step up to being a journeyman; a journeyman was no longer tied to a particular master; he could go to work for another master if he wanted (and his current master was agreeable, since he had to have a journeyman’s certificate to leave). However, a journeyman could not set up a shop of his own. After some time as a journeyman, accumulation of sufficient cash to pay the admission fee, and submission and acceptance of a particularly good piece of work – a “masterpiece” – the journeyman could qualify as a master and set up on his own. Obviously, the guilds had considerable economic power; they could set prices and wages and punish anyone who deviated – this was codified as law in Florence and other places where guilds prospered. (On the positive side, the guilds also guaranteed quality of work; if the type of work was appropriate – gold jewelry or plate, for example – it could be taken to the guild hall and stamped with a quality symbol – a “hallmark”).

The nominal head of government in Florence was the gonfaloniere di giustizia – the “flagbearer of justice”. He was assisted by eight priors, plus assorted civil servants, who collectively made up the executive branch – the Signoria. The gonfaloniere and the priors were selected for two month terms. Selection to the positions was by lot; the names were drawn out of the bag. That sounds democratic enough, but it was how the names got into the bag that would have made a Chicago politician envious. The guilds met and selected candidates who were “deserving”; although the potential pool of candidates – every enfranchised man in Florence, somewhere between five and six thousand – was fairly large, somehow the same names were always drawn. There was also a “legislative” branch, the Consiglio Maggiore; however it could only vote on legislation proposed by the Signoria and was not allowed to debate. There were a couple of popular revolts against the system, once when the preacher Giralamo Savonarola created a sort of private holy army and tried to set up a theocratic state, and once when political opponents of Cosimo de’ Medici briefly pulled off a coup, but neither lasted.

The Medici family is always associated with Renaissance Florence but very seldom actually held any sort of political office, preferring to work “behind the scenes” – presumably by deciding whose names went into the bag. This was facilitated by their staggering wealth; after relatively modest beginnings the family had maneuvered into being appointed the official bankers of the Papacy in 1420 (mostly by playing popes and antipopes against each other, with the implied threat of having the pope and antipope come into contact and explode). Their popularity as bankers, in turn, was a result of their invention or at least popularization of international banking. Lee notes there were hundreds of national currencies in circulation and nobody could keep up with exchange rates; plus having to carry substantial quantities of gold or silver around was a severe handicap for anybody who wanted to do international business (in this context, note that during the Renaissance there were 20-30 national boundaries in Italy alone). The Medici bank founded branches all over Europe – by 1435, Ancona, Avignon, Basel, Bruges, London, Geneva, and Pisa – and invented (or at least popularized) the bill of exchange and the letter of credit, freeing merchants from hauling bullion; they were happy to pay the Medici bank a small commission for the privilege. The small commissions added up; although acknowledging that detailed economic information is hard to come by, Cosimo de’ Medici is estimated to have made a personal profit of 203,702 florins between 1435 and 1450. A florin contained 3.536 grams of gold; at the time Lee was writing that gave the florin a bullion value of around $180. The purchasing power was about $493. That gave Cosimo an annual profit of $6.7 M. Note that’s his profit, not his income or assets. The Florentine taxation system was based on property ownership; the Medici family cleverly kept their money out of land acquisition and therefore didn’t have to pay a lot of taxes. At one point Cosimo was exiled from the city by a “reform” coup; he simply refused to loan the city any money and he was eventually welcomed back with an apology.

Lee connects a lot of Renaissance artwork with bankers like the Medici trying to save their souls. The Church was heavily opposed to usury, but, of course, you could buy your way out of Purgatory with suitable donations. Sometimes these were monetary, but artistic endowments were acceptable as well. The use of art for salvation also extended to the military; the Italian city states were perpetually at war and were not particularly squeamish about how they went about it. Sir John Hawkwood, a English knight widely praised as one of the most honorable and courteous mercenary captains, was noted for only massacring 5000 Italian civilians during his career. The less humane included men like Frederico da Montefeltro, who was so paranoid that after losing his right eye in combat he had a notch cut in his nose so he could see someone trying to approach his “blind” side, and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, who (according to Pope Pius II) raped both his daughters and both his sons-in-law, poisoned both his wives, and broke faith with everyone who hired him as a soldier. Both da Montefeltro and Malatesta commissioned artworks showing them in pious poses.

The Florentine attitude toward sex was typical for the time. Prostitution was tolerated but controlled; homosexuality was as well, as long as it was discrete. Lee claims that there is evidence that some homosexual unions were formalized by the Church; however he also notes the city had a “vice squad” specifically established to crack down on gays, especially when Florence was doing poorly in its perpetual wars with Milan. Attitudes toward other minorities similarly fluctuated; there was a thriving Jewish community through most of the Renaissance but persecution ramped up when the city needed money. Blacks were rare but known; it was an ostentatious sign of wealth to have a black slave. A lot of hatred was directed against Islam; Lee notes, with a slightly puzzled tone, that even merchants who had traveled in Mamluk or Ottoman territory, and therefore presumably knew that most of the accusations were slander, were just as prolific in invective as everybody else.

Lee closes with sort of an apology, noting that the injustices and ugliness of the Renaissance are still with us but arguing that our time has not made up for it by creating equivalent art and beauty. He seems sincere enough.

An extensive bibliography. Well referenced but by page number only so you have to thumb through the reference list if you suspect there might be more information. Illustrated with contemporary paintings which are all relevant to and covered by the text. The index seems sparse and I had trouble looking up things I remembered. A handy genealogy for the Medici and a list of Renaissance popes. No maps but there isn’t a lot of geographic information so I didn’t miss them. I would have benefited by a chronological table; Lee tends to bounce all over the Renaissance – from about the middle of the 13th century to the middle of the 16th - when trying to illustrate a particular point.
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1 stem
setnahkt | 5 andre anmeldelser | Dec 30, 2017 |
Saggio piacevolissimo con illustrazioni a colori dei quadri descritti. Cito un brano dell'epilogo particolarmente eloquente e che mi pare riassuma bene il senso del libro: "Per quanto terribile sia oggi la vita, è essenziale non farsi sedurre dall'idea che le sofferenze materiali siano una ragione per rassegnarsi alla mediocrità culturale, alla volgarità trionfante, alla rinuncia a ogni ideale. È vero l'esatto contrario: più buia è la notte, più si deve fervidamente aspirare alla chiara luce dell'alba, apportatrice di bellezza e meraviglia." Il Rinascimento (come del resto il mondo odierno) è stato un'epoca di brutture, sfruttamento, violenza, crudeltà e disparità. Secondo l'autore i capolavori concepiti in quell'epoca sono tanto più favolosi poiché sono figli di tempi bui.… (mere)
zinf | 5 andre anmeldelser | Nov 20, 2017 |



½ 3.4

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