The Birth of Venus Book

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The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus: A Novel is a 2003 novel by Sarah Dunant, a bestselling British author. The story is set in the late 15th century in Florence, Italy. It was first published in London by Little, Brown in 2003 with the title The Birth of Venus: love and death in Florence.

A young Florentine girl, Alessandra Cecchi, is drawn to a young painter commissioned to paint the family's chapel walls. The painter is brought to her home by her father, a rich textile merchant whose business would be negatively affected by the rise of Girolamo Savonarola in Florence over the next few years. The book follows Alessandra's daily life, and is written in the first person, as a memoir written by Alessandra late in her life. Her passion for painting and learning serve her well, but her family does not approve. Her mother tries her hardest to shape Alessandra into a woman who will be desired by a successful and powerful man. Eventually, after Alessandra has met the painter, but before her feelings for him and his talent have made themselves known to her, her hateful brother Tomaso suggests strong but quiet Cristoforo Langella as a potential husband for her. She marries him shortly afterward.

Meanwhile, her attraction to the painter grows, as does her affection for her husband Langella. Alessandra's observations of the political turbulence in Florence are key to the storyline. Dunant captures the personal conflict felt by Alessandra - she feels torn between Savonarola's fiery message and her own ideas. She believes she knows what is right, but doesn't know what she will do about it.

Alessandra realizes that her duty to her family and to her spouse cannot take over her life, and eventually realizes her passion for the painter. Her romance, it seems, is necessary, because she is the only one who can save him.

Genre writing has provided fertile ground for feminist fiction. Detective stories, thrillers and historical novels have been pressed into service to explore gender-based issues of psychology, morality and injustice. Sarah Dunant, the author of eight widely praised thrillers, has switched allegiance with The Birth of Venus, a seductive and ambitious novel set in late 15th-century Florence.

Dunant's themes are archetypal: women and self-determination, women and creativity, women and marriage, women and God. Her spirited heroine, 14-year-old Alessandra, has a lineage that stretches back to the earliest novels by women: not pretty, but handsome; poor at dancing, but brilliant at Latin and Greek; she lives for art rather than romance, but is still susceptible to emotion. The antecedents of The Birth of Venus are clear, and sometimes quite recent - the picture Dunant draws of convent life as a "republic of women" at the book's close owes something to Michèle Roberts. The puzzle is, how has Dunant created a story that is so fresh, vibrant and utterly compelling?

Part of her success lies in the setting. The last 10 years of the quattrocento were politically tumultuous for Florence. The city's ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, died in 1492, leaving a void his weak son Piero could scarcely fill. The Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola held the populace in his sway for four terrifying years, preaching against moral corruption, material wealth and women (whom he banned first from church and then from the streets). All of this is eagerly dissected by Alessandra and her middle-aged husband Cristoforo, himself a political player and in mortal danger from "God's militia". And it is tempered with just enough detail (the prostitutes with their regulation bells, the lemon paste used to whiten Alessandra's inky hands) to prick one's imagination.

But when one thinks of Renaissance Florence, one thinks of art, and it is through her descriptions of frescoes and altar pieces, painted wedding chests and fine linens that Dunant hooks the reader. The colours, the textures, the feel of the brush in Alessandra's uncertain hand as she paints a figure in her family's newly commissioned chapel; all are so vividly realised it is hard not to share the heroine's intoxication. This book is a love letter to the glories of the city (the writer now divides her time between Florence and London), and an extremely persuasive one.

If the historical aspect of the novel is a departure for Dunant, she utilises the narrative skill she developed writing mysteries. Sometimes this can go awry: the subplot involving the murder of several sexual miscreants is not especially convincing, and the book's denouement is hurried and unlikely. But for the most part this author knows how to turn a plot, whether she is writing about the unravelling of complex family tensions or the nearly disastrous impact Savonarola has on an impressionable artist brought to the city from the Low Countries.

With its painterly background (Michelangelo has a shadowy role) and its heart-thumping emotional twists, this book could easily have been self-indulgent. Dunant's passionate knowledge of her subject, the fluidity of her prose and her commitment to storytelling instead make it an accomplished delight.


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