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In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
New York: Random House, 2006, pp. 371.

Courtesan cover.jpg

Since I greatly enjoyed Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus , I read her most recent book, In the Company of the Courtesan, as soon as I had time for non-academic reading. My anticipated pleasure was enhanced by the knowledge that it dealt with sixteenth-century Venice, my favorite century and my favorite city which are also the time and place discussed in my own book Moderata Fonte: Women and Life in Sixteenth-Century Venice

I must admit that I was a bit surprised at the book’s frank language about the details of the profession of the courtesan, although I should not have been really, since the subject matter is clearly conducive to the frequent mentions of anatomical details and the female protagonist’s sexual entertainment of several men. (These introductory comments are also meant as a warning to our readers, who may find such matters offensive and who might therefore not wish to read the book.)

I appreciate Dunant’s comments at the end of her text, which define the characters who are historically real from those who are fictional, as well as her slight manipulation of historical truth. As an academic, I also value the book’s bibliography, which confirms that, as our author states, “the Venice of this novel is deeply rooted in research”. My own research on the social, political, economic and religious mores of sixteenth-century Venice confirms the veracity of the details that Dunant presents in her book.

While in The Birth of Venus Dunant tells the story of a fictional female painter in the historically true political turmoil of the de Medici’s Renaissance Florence, in this book, our author brings forward fictional representations of people who are not usually the protagonists of historical tales, such as prostitutes, dwarfs, Jews, healers and cripples, and she highlights their close interaction with noblemen, clergymen, writers and painters.

In the Company of the Courtesan describes about ten years in the life of Fiammetta Bianchini, a beautiful cortigiana onesta (a linguistic oxymoron used to define an intelligent, educated and talented high-class prostitute), recounted through the eyes, the mind and the voice of her “manager” or pimp: a witty, intelligent and talented dwarf, Bucino Teodoldi. Escaping from the carnage and horrors of the Sack of Rome in 1527, Fiammetta and Bucino settle in the busy, rich and powerful city of Venice, where they painfully build a new life. Their vicissitudes bring forward historically real figures like Tiziano Vecellio (Titian), the well-known painter of sensuous women and seraphic angels and saints, as well as Pietro Aretino, a tart and witty writer, known for his licentious works. An interesting character is also a Venetian Jew, representing those moneylenders from the Ghetto (the word coming from the Venetian getto, defining the foundry that existed in the place of the first Jewish enclave in Venice), who greatly contributed to Venice’s wealth by lending money to merchants and noblemen in need.

While the story unfolds with its interesting and suspenseful moments, Dunant’s style captivates the readers also through detailed and sensual descriptions of, for instance, the Rialto’s fish market or the beauty care of our courtesan, or through general comments that convey popular wisdom, such as: “the truth is that ugliness is a good deal more common than beauty” (56) or insightful comparisons such as: “Whereas Rome made her money selling forgiveness for sins, Venice grows fat on feeding them” (67).

Finally, this book can also be read as a reflection on the meaning of life, on the difficult balance between the pleasures of the flesh and the demands of the heart, human greed for wealth and the longing for love. If you read it, let me know whether you liked it! Happy summer reading!


Paola Malpezzi Price

Professor of French and Italian

Colorado State University