Manchester, temporarily putting aside his rousing Churchill series (The Last Lion), offers a disappointing retread of past histories about the explosive dawn of the modern age. For Manchester, the Middle Ages were a period of unrelieved superstition, corruption, violence, anti-intellectualism, and intolerance. The worst offenders were the Popes, particularly those ruling on the brink of the Protestant Reformation, whose catalogue of sins included assassination plots, simony, and nepotism. Their indulgence in fornication is described here with almost lip-smacking salaciousness (Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, is pictured as making love with one woman when he suddenly spies her naked daughter, whose "rhythmic rotation of the hips...so intrigued [him] that he switched partners in midstroke"). Manchester's heroes include Leonardo da Vinci, Luther, and Erasmus; still, in attempting to paint the twilight of an old order in bold colors, he has lost all sense of nuance, acknowledging only in a sentence the Church's role in stabilizing Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed, and picturing the Middle Ages--which produced Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Dante, Chaucer, and the builders of Chartres--as altogether bad. Manchester has not forgotten the skills that, with invective, eloquence, and anecdote, make him a master storyteller. Yet, by his own admission, he did not master any recent scholarship on the early 16th century, which dooms him to retelling the same old stories recounted countless times before. The book Manchester could have written is glimpsed briefly only in the last quarter here, when he transforms Ferdinand Magellan into a paradigm of the tragic hero he celebrated in his works on JFK, Douglas MacArthur, and Churchill. Disheartening: a "portrait" painted in simplified strokes and with no perspective.