A Florentine treat

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

dunant venusI used to have all four of Sarah Dunant’s Italian Renaissance novels on my shelves. I liked the idea of them, as I love Italy, its art and architecture and so on but, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, so they got forgotten and late last year I gave them away to the charity shop. A week later, our book group picked the first of them, The Birth of Venus, so I had to buy a copy again (but as it was for Book Group, it’s not breaking the TBR Dare).

If I had to pitch this novel to someone who’d not read it, I’d say it’s The Miniaturist meets Girl with a Pearl Earring relocated to Renaissance Florence. I know that this novel was published in 2003, way before the bestselling The Miniaturist, (reviewed here) but one of its main themes – that of a young bride wedding, then standing by, a husband who is not what he seems, was familiar to me, as was the other of a girl interested in art.

However, there is a lot more substance in this novel to savour than that suggests. The specific timing gives much drama – being set as a strong Medici dies and a weaker one is not able to withstand the fire and brimstone spouted by the monk Savonarola, plus the French army is on the doorstep. The city of Florence which had been cosmopolitan, colourful and worldly has to change.

Alessandra Cecci is fourteen, the youngest of four children and, unusually for this time, an educated young woman who speaks Latin and Greek, enjoys discussing philosophy, but more than anything else, she loves to draw – all qualities that could make it difficult to find her a husband when the time comes. Her sister Plautilla, is to wed soon, and Alessandra wonders what will happen to her brothers, the dour Luca and peacock Tomaso.

Her father, a well-to-do cloth merchant returns from a trip, bringing with him a young painter whom he has engaged to paint frescoes in their family chapel. The painter had been living with monks for a long time and is rather rattled when he meets Alessandra!  On their rare encounters, she will badger him to look at her drawings and offer some advice, something the  shy painter is wary of doing.

Meanwhile, Alessandra is courted Christoforo Langella.  They met at a dance and despite him being much older, he charmed her with daring remarks against Savonarola, who seriously disapproved of women being educated.

… he said in the quiet voice he had used in the dance, ‘You know, Alessandra, why we are meeting here today?’
I felt sick to my stomach. Of course I should say no, as my mother might have taught me. But the fact was I did know. How could I not?
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I think so.’
‘Would that be acceptable to you?’
I looked up at him. ‘I was not aware that my feelings would be taken into consideration.’
‘Well, they are. That is why I’m asking you now.’
‘You are kind, sir.’ And I know I blushed.
‘No, not really. But I would like to think myself fair. We are both strange fishes in this sea. The time for fighting alone is drawing to a close. Talk to your mother. No doubt we will see each other again.’
He moved away from me and soon after took his leave. (p116)

With Lorenzo de Medici dead, Piero proves no foil against Savonarola, the monk who is determined to cleanse Florence of its sins. It is suggested to Alessandra that she moves to the country or enters a convent – it won’t be safe for young girls any more in the city. Alessandra has other ideas – as a married woman she’d be safe – so, bring the marriage forward.

I can’t say any more about Alessandra’s life from this point on. Things are about to get very tricky for sinners though with Savonarola’s firebrand version of Puritanism taking hold in the city. There is a real sense of danger alongside the relationship drama which enfolds Alessandra, her new husband and her family.

Renaissance Florence is depicted as a place of opposites – the beauty of the art and sculptures contrasts against a series of brutal murders on the streets. Dunant’s writing is very vivid and the plotting pulls you in and doesn’t let go. Alessandra is a plucky heroine being an unusual girl for the times, but close to her equal is Erila – their house-slave.

She says she remembers nothing of her homeland in North Africa, except for the fact that the sun was bigger there and the oranges tasted sweeter. Her history might be the stuff of a modern Homer.  She had been brought to Venice with her mother when she was, she thought, five or six years old, and sold at the slave market there… My father had taken her in lieu of a debt. … I think my mother saw in her the answer to her prayers when it came to her singular daughter and so from early on she had become mine. But no one really owned Erila. Though in law she was my father’s property to do with as he wished, she always had  the independence and stealth of a cat, wandering the city and bringing back gossip like fresh fruit and making money on its resale. She has been my best friend in the house for as long as I can remember and my eyes and ears for all the places I cannot go. (p41)

I really enjoyed this novel (and wish I hadn’t given the others I had had away!). (8.5/10)

As for our book group, we discussed the similarities with The Miniaturist, questioned whether Alessandra was too ‘modern’ a heroine. We also talked about whether it was a ‘women’s novel’ and tried to place it along the axis of commercial to more literary fare, deciding it sat nicely just to the literary side of the middle being impeccably researched, well written and easy to read.  We also loved all the art, and all of us there having visited Florence at some time spent some time discussing this novel’s painter and the art references within.

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Source: Own copy

Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus (2003), Virago paperback, 432 pages.

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