I’ve just finished Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus. Renaissance Italy is such fascinating subject matter that I wonder I’ve not read much about it before. I absolutely devour any history programs about the Medici and the Borgias. One of my colleagues teaches a class entitled “Dante and the Medieval World.” Yes, in a high school — isn’t that cool? Anyway, I thought of her often as I read, because Dante is frequently alluded to in this novel.
The novel begins in 1490s Florence, just as Lorenzo de’ Medici dies and the city comes under the control of Savonarola. To Alessandra Cecchi, the main character, it is a frightening time, as the rebirth and flowering of the Renaissance seems perilously close to being snuffed out forever. Alessandra is strong-willed. She has a fine mind and the latent talent of an artist, but she is often discouraged in using both. Alas, she is a free-spirited woman in a harshly patriarchal society.
Alessandra is married off to politically astute and sensitive Cristoforo. The marriage allows Alessandra to have certain freedoms that she craves, but it also stifles her — Cristoforo is homosexual, and he cannot feel passion for Alessandra. Instead, Alessandra is captivated by the young painter employed to create frescoes for her family’s chapel.
The book was well-written, and I definitely felt as if characters were rendered honestly, with special attention given to the times in which they lived. Amazon recommended this book to me because I bought books by Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland, whom they considered similar. If you reduce Dunant’s book to simply being a novel about art, then yes, they are similar. However, while Vreeland and Chevalier write about well-known artists and/or works of art and their backstories, Dunant has created a fictional art world. None of her characters are famous, and we cannot be sure that anything they created is today the admired creation of an unknown artist, but they do live in fascinating times, and I was easily swept into their story.