The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunantby Paola Malpezzi-Price - Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
I will start with a confession: I did not read The Da Vinci Code, so I cannot compare it to The Birth of Venus, the book I am reviewing, although they both belong to the same genre of historical fiction. I must say, however, that I enjoyed Dunant’s novel for several reasons and I plan to read Dan Brown’s book before I return to teaching in August.
The Birth of Venus recounts in detail the four years (1494-1498) of Savonarola’s ruling of Florence, Italy, following Lorenzo de’ Medici’s death. This was a period of intense spiritual fervour as well as religious fanaticism which ended with Savonarola being excommunicated by the Pope and put to death through fire by the Florentines. The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent marked the end of a glorious period for Florence, in which art, literature, and philosophy had flourished on the premises that any form of beauty was acceptable to God. Savonarola’s concept of a sterner and stricter God did not include His benevolence towards admirable paintings or sculptures of naked men and women or ancient gods and goddesses. His religious asceticism ended with the bonfire of "vanities" that destroyed several artifacts in the name of God.
Readers are able to imagine and appreciate everyday life in Renaissance Florence as well as the violence and the cruelty of the ruling classes in this period of political and social transition and turmoil through Dunant’s description of life in the two rich palazzi inhabited by the main characters of the novel. We learn, for instance, about the Florentine rulers’ workings to extract information from prisoners and the means of torture they used, such as the strappado which broke the will of people by breaking the sinews of their arms.
Dunant’s retelling of Florence’s history accompanies the fictional story of the characters. This is told in the first person through the diary left by Sister Lucrezia, alias Alessandrea Cecchi, daughter of a rich Florentine cloth merchant. I appreciate reading about historical and social events described from a woman’s point of view as they reveal aspects and issues easily overlooked by male writers.
Growing up female in Renaissance Florence meant remaining completely outside the public arena and in the care of a father and/or brother(s) first and of a husband later. Any woman who transgressed from the assigned roles of dutiful daughter and faithful wife would incur public disapproval. Dunant recounts the difficulties that young Alessandra Cecchi encounters in realizing (or attempting to realize) her aspirations of becoming a painter. The accent on painting in the novel justifies the title, The Birth of Venus, that recalls Botticelli’s famous representation. Although Alessandra gains her mother’s reluctant help and approval in pursuing with discretion her artistic "whims" as a child and adolescent, such a desire is bound to meet the disapproval and hostility of family members and outsiders as she becomes a young woman, ready to enter the marriage market. Alessandra’s hopes for an artistic career seem to become even less realizable as Florence is invaded by French troops for a brief period and then is ruled by the fiercely misogynist Savonarola. In fact, after the transition from the secular Medici rule to Savonarola’s "godly" government, the public attitude towards women hardened as they were more and more often depicted as dangerous temptresses to be avoided and to keep shut up at home.
The gender issue is complicated in Dunant’s novel by the introduction of characters who profess sodomy, a crime more harshly punished than prostitution in Florence, as well as in most other Italian city states at this time. The transgressive nature of the female characters’ lives is accentuated at the end of the book, when a surprise revelation succeeds in blending the public aspect of Florentine life with the private story.
Proof of Dunant’s ability in keeping my interest is the fact that I read the last two thirds of the book in two evenings, notwithstanding of the great temptations of Italian summer life, including gelato, passeggiata, and visits to relatives and friends.