A pattern is emerging. I seem to be revisiting authors I’ve already reviewed for “Bookin’ with Sunny.” Now I’m going back to their earlier books because I so enjoyed their latest. Sarah Dunant is such an author, someone whose historical novels are delectably real and deliciously provocative. Fascinated by Dunant’s reconsideration of Lucretia Borgia and Renaissance Italy in Blood and Beauty, I wanted to read what is perhaps her best-known novel, The Birth of Venus. I was not disappointed.
Like Blood and Beauty, The Birth of Venus takes place in Renaissance Italy, but it is set in Florence rather than Rome. It also traces the teen-age years of a precocious young woman whose intellect and talents are inappropriate for the life she is destined to lead. In both novels, an arranged marriage ultimately sets the teen-ager on a path to an unforeseen maturity. In both novels, too, historical figures dictate many of the events. The mad monk, Girolamo Savanarola, dominates The Birth of Venus, just as Pope Alexander VI controls the actions of Blood and Beauty.
There is one major difference between the two novels, however. Lucretia Borgia was an actual Renaissance figure, while Alessandra Cecchi springs wholly from Sarah Dunant’s imagination. So even though the events of The Birth of Venus—such as Savonarola’s charismatic madness and the bonfire of the vanities—are historically accurate, Alessandra and her family are created characters, not real men and women you might actually find in a history of the times.
Because of the moralistic changes (and an almost messianic terror) Savonarola is bringing to Florence, the city is in a state of upheaval. Alessandra marries precipitously. She and her parents and siblings agree that marriage will provide the safest haven in such trying times. Once Alessandra is wed, Dunant deftly weaves her fate into the events that befall all the Florentine citizens. Her father’s business falters because it caters to beauty rather than austerity. Her sister loses a daughter, while one brother turns traitorous toward the other. And most critically, Alessandra’s husband turns out to be someone with mixed loyalties and (in)fidelities.
Also woven into The Birth of Venus are the artistic propensities of Florence as the de Medicis flourished and then faltered. Alessandra herself wishes to be an artist, an impossible dream for a woman in those days. Dunant describes Renaissance art in glowing detail. Indeed, sculpture and painting and chapel embroidery take center stage on page after page. I remember reading George Eliot’s Romola many years ago (another novel set in Florence during the rise and fall of Savonarola), and studying how that famous nineteenth-century novelist brought the sister arts together in her prose. Dunant does the same, enhancing her scenes with a visual beauty that in turn embellishes her narrative. The words and the paintings work together in The Birth of Venus, adding texture and depth.
I believe I’ll continue looking for books by Sarah Dunant. I like the way she combines history and creativity; I enjoy her analyses of gifted young women caught in a web of historic inevitability; I appreciate her visualizations of artistic scenes. The Birth of Venus is a fine piece of fiction, one I highly recommend. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Sara Dunant: Blood and Beauty; In the Company of the Courtesean; Sacred Hearts; Mapping the Edge; Birth Marks; Flatlands; Under My Skin; Snowstorms in a Hot Climate; Transgressions.