LORDS OF ITALY by Orville Prescott


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More lean-jawed and cruel-eyed tyrants, saintly and secular, by the retired book critic of the New York Times who authored Princes of the Renaissance (1969). This time Prescott goes back to the high Middle Ages to sketch in garish colors the likes of Robert Guiscard the Norman conqueror of Sicily, Gregory VII the great reforming Pope who launched the Investiture Controversy, and Barbarossa who tried desperately to subjugate the Italian city-states in the 12th century. But neither plot nor atmosphere has altered -- the lords are warlords engaged in self-aggrandizement and vicious power politics, sacking towns and dismembering their foes, and treacherously making and breaking alliances until laid low by their own megalomania. The cultural life of Italy, despite brief walk-ons by Dante and Petrarch, gets short shrift and at all times the streets of Rome are raucous with ""babbling prophets, rapturous mystics, besotted alchemists, learned necromancers."" Prescott seems unduly fascinated with the violent and capricious emotionalism of the age, repeatedly insisting on the ""joyful bellicosity of the Medieval Italians"" as they pillage, depose and destroy. Gibbon and medieval writers like Fra Salimbene and Dante are cited as authorities but the influence of Burckhardt is discernible from start to finish. As a popularizer Prescott is prone to melodrama and the chronological parade of leering potentates is at best very conventional narrative history. Interest will be limited to Italophiles of whom Prescott is obviously one.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1972
Publisher: Harper & Row