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Episode 166: Beauty and Terror, or, the Italian Renaissance Re-envisioned

In the movie The Third Man, Orson Welles delivered this sensational adlibbed speech:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

This was unfair to Swabia, which invented the cuckoo clock, and to Switzerland, whose mercenaries had been up to their elbows in that bloodshed, transmuting blood into gold which flowed into Switzerland funding banks, dairies, clockmakers, and the multiplex knife. But Welles’ take on 16th century history is not that far removed from Catherine Fletcher’s new history The Beauty and the Terror: The Italian Renaissance and the Rise of the West, which reminds us that the art of the Renaissance existed in a world of warfare; and that its literature thrived despite, or because of, deep religious passions.

Catherine Fletcher is a historian of Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, and Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has previously published The Black Prince of Florence, a biography of Duke Alessandro de Medici of Florence, and has served as adviser to the set designers of the TV series Wolf Hall.


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