The Plantagenet era began and ended in chaos. In 1120 the White Ship sank into the icy waters off the coast of Normandy, taking with it the English heir apparent and the highest echelon of Anglo-Norman nobility, sparking off the twenty-year Great Anarchy. It ended in 1399 with a Lancastrian coup against the weak King Richard II. The Plantagenet dynasty encompassed some of the best stories and the most colorful rulers of European history. They are all characters we know (or think we know) – from Geoffrey the Handsome with a sprig of yellow broom blossom in his hair (planta genista), to Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and wicked King John. Dan Jones’ clear and lively writing deftly elucidates the characters and themes of the time, in particular the struggle between the powerful and unruly English barons and the willful Plantagenet kings. This is history writing at its best.
Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Doubleday, $35) describes the origins of the Soviet Bloc, a now defunct geopolitical entity consisting of European states that fell under the control of the USSR after World War II. Focusing specifically on Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, Applebaum investigates wartime and post-war factors that made the establishment of the Soviet regime possible. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time. This fantastic study of a “totalitarian mindset, Soviet priorities and Soviet thinking” should be required reading for any Soviet- or 20th-centuryhistory buff.
Competition was key to the astonishing creativity of the Italian Renaissance. Nowhere was this truer than in Florence, where, in 1504, officials commissioned paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo for the Republic’s Great Council Hall. These murals are The Lost Battles (Knopf, $35) at the center of this rich account by The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones. Commissioned both to celebrate Florence and to determine who was the greater artist, the dual depictions looked to the past martial glory of Florence for their subject, but in approach and style pointed ahead to the art of the High Renaissance. As Jones defines the different strengths of the two competitors—Leonardo was “an artist who worked with ideas,” while Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor and dealt in risk and daring—he shows how these distinctions heralded new criteria for judging art. The emphasis was no longer on technical expertise, but on individual style and originality. And the winner? Neither artist completed the assignment, and the preliminary drawings were likely destroyed when the Medicis regained power in 1513.