Birth of Venus

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Overview

"Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter's abilities." But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra's parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by ...
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The Birth of Venus (Random House Reader's Circle Deluxe Reading Group Edition): A Novel

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Overview

"Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter's abilities." But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra's parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control. Alessandra and her native city are caught between the Medici state, with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola's reactionary followers. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra's married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Though The Birth of Venus has been described, for obvious reasons, as serpentine (and it cannot be denied that the plot is so sinuous it defies summary), the imaginative energy of the enterprise is clearly warmblooded, playful, even reckless -- more feline than reptilian. Dunant puts me in mind of a well-fed, quick-witted house cat, crouched before the mouse hole of history. She's not that hungry, but she will pounce upon whatever emerges, just for the fun of chasing it all over the house. — Valerie Martin
The New Yorker
Lorenzo de’ Medici has just died, Savonarola is busy consigning Florence to the flames, and Alessandra Cecchi, a plain, headstrong girl from a prosperous Florentine family, is about to be married off to a much older suitor (who secretly plans to use her to hide his passion for her brother). Alessandra, who loves to draw, is besotted with the young painter who has been hired to decorate the family chapel. Part feverish thriller, part historical romance, the story of the outspoken heroine’s sentimental education—a comprehensive curriculum including every conceivable transgression—sometimes comes off as a heady blend of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Anaïs Nin. But Dunant’s skill lies in combining these elements with a finely textured and pertinent depiction of a cultured citizenry in the grip of rampant fundamentalism.
USA Today
A beautifully written historical novel is always a pleasure, but one that also offers subtle and insightful parallels to events in our own century is a treasure. Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus belongs in the latter category. — Diedre Donahue
The Washington Post
Though Savonarola threatens to destroy Florence, the reader is confident that the city will endure, though not unscathed -- much like Alessandra herself. Things cannot go back to the way they were before, and Dunant has injected a kind of realpolitik into the genre, making it far more poignant and interesting. — David Liss
Publishers Weekly
In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment. Alessandra, 16, is tall, sharp-tongued and dauntingly clever. At first reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, she changes her mind when she meets elegant 48-year-old Cristoforo, who is well-versed in art and literature. He promises to give her all the freedom she wants-and she finds out why on her wedding night. Her disappointment and frustration are soon overshadowed by the growing cloud of madness and violence hanging over Florence, nourished by the sermons of the fanatically pious Savonarola. As the wealthy purge their palazzos of "low" art and luxuries, Alessandra gives in to the dangerous attraction that draws her to a tormented young artist commissioned to paint her family's chapel. With details as rich as the brocade textiles that built Alessandra's family fortune, Dunant (Mapping the Edge; Transgressions; etc.) masterfully recreates Florence in the age of the original bonfire of the vanities. The novel moves to its climax as Savonarola's reign draws to a bloody close, with the final few chapters describing Alessandra's fate and hinting at the identity of her artist lover. While the story is rushed at the end, the author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot. Forget Baedecker and Vasari's Lives of the Artists. Dunant's vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil. (Feb. 24) Forecast: Dunant's foray into historical fiction (she is best known for her literary suspense novels) will inevitably be compared to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier readers will certainly enjoy the novel, though its meatier historical background and more robust prose style set it apart. 11-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Other novels have been written lately about young women who are interested in art in 14th-century Italy and have brought that era to life. In this novel, a teenage daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant in Florence is educated beyond the norms by her mother and is allowed to paint. She is married off to an older man who uses his marriage as a shield to hide his own homosexual proclivities; and she is given freedom, within the confines of her home and position, to pursue her own interests. Those interests eventually lead to the arms of an artist, to the birth of a daughter and, eventually, to a nunnery. The political climate of Florence and the arrival of the French Army, and later Savonarola, are revealed as some of the influences that affected this extraordinary woman's life. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 403p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Children's Literature
A fabulously imagined world in which a young girl faces both the religiosity and the corruption of Florence in Savonarola's heyday entices the reader into the daily life and complex choices of the young Alessandra, only ten and on the verge of sexual awareness when the story opens but an elderly nun by the closing page. Beautiful language captures the imagination, but horrifying events bind the reader into the story. Sensitive Alessandra, with an artist's soul and imagination but a woman's body, has few choices in her world: marriage or the convent or, possibly, forbidden love for an artist and his art. First she chooses marriage, only to discover that her husband is a sodomite interested in her brother, not herself. Then she chooses the convent, hoping to protect her husband, both generous and intellectually engaging, and her brother, who is neither. Finally, she succumbs to the love of the artist who fathered her daughter and then paints her "chaste" body with the symbol of his virility. Although she sends him and her daughter away, she so longs for his love that she tattoos his symbol on her flesh. The conflicts of the priest Savonarola with his city and the Pope create a wonderful background for a coming-of-age story, but this book can be recommended only to the most mature "young adult" reader as it discusses explicitly sexual encounters, syphilis epidemics, religious murders, and suicide. 2004, Random House, Ages 13 up.
— Elisabeth Greenberg
Library Journal
The Birth of Venus is riveting historical fiction that skillfully weaves the tale of the fictional Alessandra Cecchi with Renaissance Florence, near the end of the 15th century. The book begins with the cleansing of Alessandra's corpse in a convent and the discovery of a snake tattoo on her body, then reverts to the first-person account of her life. The city is in turmoil, under the grip of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola. Alessandra yearns to paint and studies with a young painter her father has brought from the North. To be able to stay in Florence, she has an arranged marriage at the age of 15 to Cristoforo, a wealthy older man, who has a secret that impacts their relationship. Alessandra and Cristoforo witness the rise and fall of Savonarola, whose preaching about morals makes a huge impression, especially on men suspected of homosexuality. A fascinating story that brings the era alive for the listener; it adapts very well to the audio format and is competently and professionally read by Kathe Mazur. Highly recommended.-Mary Knapp, Madison P.L., WI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British author Dunant (Mapping the Edge, 2001, etc.) weaves everyone's favorite art history moments into a vivid tapestry of life on the Arno during the upheaval of the Renaissance. The postmortem ablutions of Sister Lucrezia reveal surprises. The breast cancer that was thought to have killed her was neither cancerous nor mammary, and her aged monastic corpse was lavishly decorated with a most vivid and decidedly impious serpent. How such things came to be are revealed in a retracing of the late nun's youth, flowering, and de-flowering following the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Fourth and favorite child of a prosperous silk manufacturer and his highly cultured wife, Alessandra Cecchi is far less conventionally attractive than her sister, but she's got her mother's brains and a powerful craving to make art. So, cursed with excessive wit and artistry, this young Florentine is highly vulnerable to the surly attractions of the painter her upwardly mobile father has brought home from the gray reaches of northern Europe to do up the family chapel. The nameless decorator, however, seems impervious to her gawky charms, and the possibility of a relationship is nipped in the bud by the sudden need of a much older family acquaintance to find a wife and get an heir. Alas, on her wedding night Alessandra learns in the most humiliating way how it came to be that her flamboyant brother Tomaso was such good friends with her new husband Cristoforo and how there will be none of the carnal pleasures of the garden-variety marriage. The charming and cultured Cristoforo has formed this unholy alliance to stay out of the clutches of Girolamo Savonarola's religious storm troopers. To the chagrin of all, thegrisly wedding coupling fails to produce a child. Then, as the Dominican Taliban starts to squeeze the life from the Florentine Republic, Alessandra finds her way back to the family chapel and the very needy young genius. No real surprises in the romance department, but the depiction of Florence as Tehran under the Ayatollah is an eye-opener. Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillen Aitken, UK
From the Publisher
“Simply amazing, so brilliantly written...almost intolerably exciting at times, and at others, equally poignant.”
–Antonia Fraser

“A beautiful serpent of a novel, seductive and dangerous...full of wise guile, the most brilliant novel yet from a writer of powerful historical imagination and wicked literary gifts. Dunant’s snaky tale of art, sex and Florentine hysteria consumes utterly–but the experience is all pleasure.”
–Simon Schama

“Sarah Dunant has given us a story of sacrifice and betrayal, set during Florence’s captivity under the fanatic Savonarola. She writes like a painter, and thinks like a philosopher: juxtapositioning the humane against the animal, hope against fanaticism, creativity against destruction. The Birth of Venus is a tour de force.”
–Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

“Dunant has created a vivid and compellingly believable picture of Renaissance Florence: the squalor and brutality; the confidence and vitality; the political machinations. Her research has obviously been meticulous....A magnificent novel.”
–The Telegraph (London)

“It’s to Dunant’s credit that the vast quantities of historical information in this book are deployed so naturally and lightly....On the simplest level, this is an erotic and gripping thriller, but its intellectual excitement also comes from the way Dunant makes the art and philosophy of the period look new and dangerous again....Theology has rarely looked so sexy.”
–The Independent (London)

“No one should visit Tuscany this summer without this book. It is richly textured and driven by a thrillerish fever.”
–The Times (London)

“[Dunant’s] control, pace, and instinct are well-nigh impeccable.”
–The Financial Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812968972
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/30/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 134,774
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant has written eight novels and edited two books of essays. She has worked widely in print, television, and radio, and until recently hosted the leading BBC Radio arts program, Night Waves. Now a full-time writer, she is adapting her novels Transgressions and Mapping the Edge for the screen. Dunant has two children and lives in London and Florence.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com  

Biography

British novelist, broadcaster, and critic Sarah Dunant is well known on both sides of the pond for her bestselling series of mysteries featuring sleuth Hannah Wolfe. Other novels feature the challenging, often absurd, choices women face for love and identity.

Dunant's first two novels were actually co-authored with Peter Busby, thus creating their pseudonym, Peter Dunant. In Exterminating Angels (1983), whether they're called terrorists or modern-day Robin Hoods, the Exterminating Angels are out to set the record straight. For them, the ends always justify the means when righting the wrongs of the world. The political thriller Intensive Care (1986) describes a chance meeting at the site of an explosion in London.

The first book to be released under her own name was Snow Storms in a Hot Climate (1987), and features Marla Masterson. Marla, a young British professor of Anglo Saxon Literature goes to New York City to rescue a friend from her drug-addled, abusive boyfriend, but not before a murder mystery ensnares them all.

Three years later, Dunant introduced readers to Hannah Wolfe, a tough and witty Private Investigator. In Birth Marks (1990), Wolfe is hired to find a missing ballerina. Unfortunately, the dancer is found by the police -- eight months pregnant and at the bottom of the Thames. When everyone but Wolfe writes off the young single woman's death as a suicide, Wolfe pushes her investigation into London's dance companies and powerful Parisian families, searching for the father. Wolfe's reputation is put on the chopping block in Fatlands (1993). Wolfe finds herself on the trail of a violent animal rights activist group after they kill the daughter of a wealthy scientist for using animals in his experiments. The novel won Dunant a Silver Dagger award for Crime Fiction. Disguised as a customer, Wolfe investigates a string of sabotage at the Castle Dean health spa in Under My Skin (1995) and soon learns that, to some, beauty is something to die -- or kill -- for.

Breaking from her Hannah Wolfe series, Dunant's next release explores the line between victim and victor. In Transgressions (1997), translator Lizzie Skvorecky is making a living translating cheap Czech thrillers into English. When the strange events of the novels seem to occur in her real life, Lizzie realizes that someone -- or something -- is tampering with her reality, and accepts the violent challenge to her sanity. Kirkus reviews describes the novel as "an unsettling, often chilling, portrait of a compulsive predator and the woman who refuses to be his prey."

Mapping the Edge (1999) also portrays a woman's unusual challenges. When Anna, a single mother, takes a short vacation to Italy, leaving her six-year-old daughter with trusted friends, no one thinks twice. Until she doesn't return when scheduled. Anna's friends and her daughter endure the painful waiting while Dunant offers two explanations of Anna's disappearance. What if Anna abandoned the responsibility of motherhood to follow a hot love affair? Or perhaps Anna's life is in the hands of a sadistic killer.

Along with writing fiction, Dunant has also edited two works of non-fiction. War of the Words: The Politically Correct Debate (1994) debates the ever-changing idea of what is "acceptable" and the effect political correctness has on Liberalism. In The Age of Anxiety (1999), ten essayists discuss their anxiety -- or optimism -- for issues such as technology, family, and the end of the millennium.

Dunant's 2004 release marks her foray into historical fiction. The Birth of Venus captures the passion and the politics of deMedici Florence in the grips of a fundamentalist religious overhaul. As the city starts to purge itself of "the low and vulgar arts," the novel's heroine, Alessandra, falls in love with a young, suffering painter. Although her family marries her to a much older man, it is mostly a dismal marriage of convenience and she has a surprisingly large amount of time to spend at the side of her true love. Intelligent and daring, Duanant has combined a love story, a thriller and a historical novel in telling Alessandra's quest to find and protect her passions.

Good To Know

In our interview, Dunant shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself with us:

"I once worked as a hostess in a Japanese nightclub."

"My left foot is bigger than my right."

"I cannot whistle (no Humphrey Bogart for me, then)."

"Alas I don't have time to relax, although I am trying. The most important things in my life are my work, my children, my friends, and the possibility of a plane ticket to somewhere I have not yet been. When my kids grow up I want to have enough energy to get out a rucksack and take a long trip without a due-back-by date and the wonder to be changed by what I discover en route. Though right at this moment what I would like most is to remember where I put the car keys."

"And when it comes to writing, I just want to say that the novel is not the author. Just as the life is not the work or the work the life;instead literature is a kind of alchemy: turning lead into gold. Or at least that's the ambition."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Peter Dunant
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 8, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., Cambridge University, 1973

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

One

Looking back now, i see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn't as if Florence didn't have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn't walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.

The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God's message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ's miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.

I was almost ten years old when Domenico Ghirlandaio completed his frescoes for the Tornabuoni family in the central chapel of Santa Maria Novella. I remember it well, because my mother told me to. "You should remember this moment, Alessandra," she said. "These paintings will bring great glory to our city." And all those who saw them thought that they would.

My father's fortune was rising out of the steam of the dyeing vats in the back streets of Santa Croce then. The smell of cochineal still brings back memories of him coming home from the warehouse, the dust of crushed insects from foreign places embedded deep in his clothes. By the time the painter came to live with us in 1492-I remember the date because Lorenzo de' Medici died that spring-the Florentine appetite for flamboyant cloth had made us rich. Our newly completed palazzo was in the east of the city, between the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the church of Sant' Ambrogio. It rose four stories high around two inner courtyards, with its own small walled garden and space for my father's business on the ground floor. Our coat of arms adorned the outside walls, and while my mother's good taste curbed much of the exuberance that attends new money, we all knew it was only a matter of time before we too would be sitting for our own Gospel portraits, albeit private ones.

The night the painter arrived is sharp as an etching in my memory. It is winter, and the stone balustrades have a coating of frost as my sister and I collide on the stairs in our night shifts, hanging over the edge to watch the horses arrive in the main courtyard. It's late and the house has been asleep, but my father's homecoming is reason for celebration, not simply for his safe return but because, amid the panniers of samples, there is always special cloth for the family.

Plautilla is already beside herself with anticipation, but then she is betrothed and thinking only of her dowry. My brothers, on the other hand, are noticeable by their absence. For all our family's good name and fine cloth, Tomaso and Luca live more like feral cats than citizens, sleeping by day and hunting by night. Our house slave Erila, the font of all gossip, says they are the reason that good women should never be seen in the streets after dark. Nevertheless, when my father finds they are gone there will be trouble.

But not yet. For now we are all caught in the wonder of the moment. Firebrands light the air as the grooms calm the horses, their snorting breath steaming into the freezing air. Father is already dismounted, his face streaked with grime, a smile as round as a cupola as he waves upward to us and then turns to my mother as she comes down the stairs to greet him, her red velvet robe tied fast across her chest and her hair free and flowing down her back like a golden river. There is noise and light and the sweet sense of safety everywhere, but not shared by everyone. Astride the last horse sits a lanky young man, his cape wrapped like a bolt of cloth around him, the cold and travel fatigue tipping him dangerously forward in the saddle.

I remember as the groom approached him to take the reins he awoke with a start, his hands clutching them back as if fearful of attack, and my father had to go to him to calm him. I was too full of my own self then to realize how strange it must have been for him. I had not heard yet how different the North was, how the damp and the watery sun changed everything, from the light in the air to the light in one's soul. Of course I did not know he was a painter then. For me he was just another servant. But my father treated him with care right from the beginning: speaking to him in quiet tones, seeing him off his horse, and picking out a separate room off the back courtyard as his living quarters.

Later, as my father unpacks the Flemish tapestry for my mother and snaps open the bolts of milk-white embroidered lawn for us ("The women of Rennes go blind early in the service of my daughters' beauty"), he tells us how he found him, an orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea where the water threatens the land. How his talent with a pen overwhelmed any sense of religious vocation, so the monks had apprenticed him to a master, and when he returned, in gratitude, he painted not simply his own cell but the cells of all the other monks. These paintings so impressed my father that he decided then and there to offer him the job of glorifying our chapel. Though I should add that while he knew his cloth my father was no great connoisseur of art, and I suspect his decision was as much dictated by money, for he always had a good eye for a bargain. As for the painter? Well, as my father put it, there were no more cells for him to paint, and the fame of Florence as the new Rome or Athens of our age would no doubt have spurred him on to see it for himself.

And so it was that the painter came to live at our house.

Next morning we went to Santissima Annunziata to give thanks for my father's safe homecoming. The church is next to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the foundling hospital where young women place their bastard babies on the wheel for the nuns to care for. As we pass I imagine the cries of the infants as the wheel in the wall turns inward forever, but my father says we are a city of great charity and there are places in the wild North where you find babies amid the rubbish or floating like flotsam down the river.

We sit together in the central pews. Above our heads hang great model ships donated by those who have survived shipwrecks. My father was in one once, though he was not rich enough at the time to command a memorial in church, and on this last voyage he suffered only common seasickness. He and my mother sit ramrod straight and you can feel their minds on God's munificence. We children are less holy.

lautilla is still flighty with the thought of her gifts, while Tomaso and Luca look like they would prefer to be in bed, though my father's disapproval keeps them alert.

When we return, the house smells of feast-day food-the sweetness of roast meat and spiced gravies curling down the stairs from the upper kitchen to the courtyard below. We eat as afternoon fades into evening. First we thank God; then we stuff ourselves: boiled capon, roast pheasant, trout, and fresh pastas followed by saffron pudding and egg custards with burned sugar coating. Everyone is on their best behavior. Even Luca holds his fork properly, though you can see his fingers itch to pick up the bread and trawl it through the sauce.

Already I am beside myself with excitement at the thought of our new houseguest. Flemish painters are much admired in Florence for their precision and their sweet spirituality. "So he will paint us all, Father? We will have to sit for him, yes?"

"Indeed. That is partly why he is come. I am trusting he will make us a glorious memento of your sister's wedding."

"In which case he'll paint me first!"

lautilla is so pleased that she spits milk pudding on the tablecloth. "Then Tomaso as eldest, then Luca, and then Alessandra. Goodness, Alessandra, you will be grown even taller by then."

Luca looks up from his plate and grins with his mouth full as if this is the wittiest joke he has ever heard. But I am fresh from church and filled with God's charity to all my family. "Still. He had better not take too long. I heard that one of the daughters-in-law of the Tornabuoni family was dead from childbirth by the time Ghirlandaio unveiled her in the fresco."

"No fear of that with you. You'd have to get a husband first." Next to me Tomaso's insult is so mumbled only I can hear it.

"What is that you say, Tomaso?" My mother's voice is quiet but sharp.

He puts on his most cherubic expression. "I said, 'I have a dreadful thirst.'

ass the wine flagon, dear sister."

"Of course, brother." I pick it up, but as it moves toward him it slips out of my hands and the falling liquid splatters his new tunic.

"Ah, Mama!" he explodes. "She did that on purpose!"

"I did not!"

"She-"

"Children, children. Our father is tired and you are both too loud."

The word children does its work on Tomaso and he falls sullenly silent. In the space that follows, the sound of Luca's open-mouth chewing becomes enormous. My mother stirs impatiently in her seat. Our manners tax her profoundly. Just as in the city's menagerie the lion tamer uses a whip to control behavior, my mother has perfected the Look. She uses it now on Luca, though he is so engrossed in the pleasure of his food that today it takes a kick under the table from me to gain his attention. We are her life's work, her children, and there is still so much more to be done with us.

"Still," I say, when it feels as if we may talk again, "I cannot wait to meet him. Oh, he must be most grateful to you, Father, for bringing him here. As we all are. It will be our honor and duty as a Christian family to care for him and make him feel at home in our great city."

My father frowns and exchanges a quick glance with my mother. He has been away a long time and has no doubt forgotten how much his younger daughter must say whatever comes into her mind. "I think he is quite capable of caring for himself, Alessandra," he says firmly.

I read the warning, but there is too much at stake to stop me now. I take a breath. "I have heard it said that Lorenzo the Magnificent thinks so much of the artist Botticelli that he has him eat at his table."

There is a small glittering silence. This time the Look stills me. I drop my eyes and concentrate on my plate again. Next to me I feel Tomaso's smirk of triumph.

Yet it is true enough. Sandro Botticelli does sit at the table of Lorenzo de' Medici. And the sculptor Donatello used to walk the city in a scarlet robe given in honor of his contribution to the Republic by Cosimo, Lorenzo's grandfather. My mother has often told me how as a young girl she would see him, saluted by all, people making way for him-though that might have been as much to do with his bad temper as his talent. But the sad fact is that though Florence is rife with painters I have never met one. While our family is not as strict as some, the chances of an unmarried daughter finding herself in the company of men of any description, let alone artisans, are severely limited. Of course that has not stopped me from meeting them in my mind. Everyone knows there are places in the city where workshops of art exist. The great Lorenzo himself has founded such a one and filled its rooms and gardens with sculpture and paintings from his own classical collection. I imagine a building full of light, the smell of colors like a simmering stew, the space as endless as the artists' imaginations.

My own drawings up till now have been silverpoint, laboriously scratched into boxwood, or black chalk on paper when I can find it. Most I have destroyed as unworthy and the best are hidden well away (it was made clear to me early that my sister's cross-stitching would gain more praise than any of my sketches). So I have no idea whether I can paint or not. I am like Icarus without wings. But the desire to fly was very strong in me. I think I was always looking for a Daedalus.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

One


Looking back now, i see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn't as if Florence didn't have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn't walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.

The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God's message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ's miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.

I was almost ten years old when Domenico Ghirlandaiocompleted his frescoes for the Tornabuoni family in the central chapel of Santa Maria Novella. I remember it well, because my mother told me to. "You should remember this moment, Alessandra," she said. "These paintings will bring great glory to our city." And all those who saw them thought that they would.

My father's fortune was rising out of the steam of the dyeing vats in the back streets of Santa Croce then. The smell of cochineal still brings back memories of him coming home from the warehouse, the dust of crushed insects from foreign places embedded deep in his clothes. By the time the painter came to live with us in 1492-I remember the date because Lorenzo de' Medici died that spring-the Florentine appetite for flamboyant cloth had made us rich. Our newly completed palazzo was in the east of the city, between the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the church of Sant' Ambrogio. It rose four stories high around two inner courtyards, with its own small walled garden and space for my father's business on the ground floor. Our coat of arms adorned the outside walls, and while my mother's good taste curbed much of the exuberance that attends new money, we all knew it was only a matter of time before we too would be sitting for our own Gospel portraits, albeit private ones.

The night the painter arrived is sharp as an etching in my memory. It is winter, and the stone balustrades have a coating of frost as my sister and I collide on the stairs in our night shifts, hanging over the edge to watch the horses arrive in the main courtyard. It's late and the house has been asleep, but my father's homecoming is reason for celebration, not simply for his safe return but because, amid the panniers of samples, there is always special cloth for the family.

Lautilla is already beside herself with anticipation, but then she is betrothed and thinking only of her dowry. My brothers, on the other hand, are noticeable by their absence. For all our family's good name and fine cloth, Tomaso and Luca live more like feral cats than citizens, sleeping by day and hunting by night. Our house slave Erila, the font of all gossip, says they are the reason that good women should never be seen in the streets after dark. Nevertheless, when my father finds they are gone there will be trouble.

But not yet. For now we are all caught in the wonder of the moment. Firebrands light the air as the grooms calm the horses, their snorting breath steaming into the freezing air. Father is already dismounted, his face streaked with grime, a smile as round as a cupola as he waves upward to us and then turns to my mother as she comes down the stairs to greet him, her red velvet robe tied fast across her chest and her hair free and flowing down her back like a golden river. There is noise and light and the sweet sense of safety everywhere, but not shared by everyone. Astride the last horse sits a lanky young man, his cape wrapped like a bolt of cloth around him, the cold and travel fatigue tipping him dangerously forward in the saddle.

I remember as the groom approached him to take the reins he awoke with a start, his hands clutching them back as if fearful of attack, and my father had to go to him to calm him. I was too full of my own self then to realize how strange it must have been for him. I had not heard yet how different the North was, how the damp and the watery sun changed everything, from the light in the air to the light in one's soul. Of course I did not know he was a painter then. For me he was just another servant. But my father treated him with care right from the beginning: speaking to him in quiet tones, seeing him off his horse, and picking out a separate room off the back courtyard as his living quarters.

Later, as my father unpacks the Flemish tapestry for my mother and snaps open the bolts of milk-white embroidered lawn for us ("The women of Rennes go blind early in the service of my daughters' beauty"), he tells us how he found him, an orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea where the water threatens the land. How his talent with a pen overwhelmed any sense of religious vocation, so the monks had apprenticed him to a master, and when he returned, in gratitude, he painted not simply his own cell but the cells of all the other monks. These paintings so impressed my father that he decided then and there to offer him the job of glorifying our chapel. Though I should add that while he knew his cloth my father was no great connoisseur of art, and I suspect his decision was as much dictated by money, for he always had a good eye for a bargain. As for the painter? Well, as my father put it, there were no more cells for him to paint, and the fame of Florence as the new Rome or Athens of our age would no doubt have spurred him on to see it for himself.

And so it was that the painter came to live at our house.

Next morning we went to Santissima Annunziata to give thanks for my father's safe homecoming. The church is next to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the foundling hospital where young women place their bastard babies on the wheel for the nuns to care for. As we pass I imagine the cries of the infants as the wheel in the wall turns inward forever, but my father says we are a city of great charity and there are places in the wild North where you find babies amid the rubbish or floating like flotsam down the river.

We sit together in the central pews. Above our heads hang great model ships donated by those who have survived shipwrecks. My father was in one once, though he was not rich enough at the time to command a memorial in church, and on this last voyage he suffered only common seasickness. He and my mother sit ramrod straight and you can feel their minds on God's munificence. We children are less holy.



lautilla is still flighty with the thought of her gifts, while Tomaso and Luca look like they would prefer to be in bed, though my father's disapproval keeps them alert.

When we return, the house smells of feast-day food-the sweetness of roast meat and spiced gravies curling down the stairs from the upper kitchen to the courtyard below. We eat as afternoon fades into evening. First we thank God; then we stuff ourselves: boiled capon, roast pheasant, trout, and fresh pastas followed by saffron pudding and egg custards with burned sugar coating. Everyone is on their best behavior. Even Luca holds his fork properly, though you can see his fingers itch to pick up the bread and trawl it through the sauce.

Already I am beside myself with excitement at the thought of our new houseguest. Flemish painters are much admired in Florence for their precision and their sweet spirituality. "So he will paint us all, Father? We will have to sit for him, yes?"

"Indeed. That is partly why he is come. I am trusting he will make us a glorious memento of your sister's wedding."

"In which case he'll paint me first!"



lautilla is so pleased that she spits milk pudding on the tablecloth. "Then Tomaso as eldest, then Luca, and then Alessandra. Goodness, Alessandra, you will be grown even taller by then."

Luca looks up from his plate and grins with his mouth full as if this is the wittiest joke he has ever heard. But I am fresh from church and filled with God's charity to all my family. "Still. He had better not take too long. I heard that one of the daughters-in-law of the Tornabuoni family was dead from childbirth by the time Ghirlandaio unveiled her in the fresco."

"No fear of that with you. You'd have to get a husband first." Next to me Tomaso's insult is so mumbled only I can hear it.

"What is that you say, Tomaso?" My mother's voice is quiet but sharp.

He puts on his most cherubic expression. "I said, 'I have a dreadful thirst.'



ass the wine flagon, dear sister."

"Of course, brother." I pick it up, but as it moves toward him it slips out of my hands and the falling liquid splatters his new tunic.

"Ah, Mama!" he explodes. "She did that on purpose!"

"I did not!"

"She-"

"Children, children. Our father is tired and you are both too loud."

The word children does its work on Tomaso and he falls sullenly silent. In the space that follows, the sound of Luca's open-mouth chewing becomes enormous. My mother stirs impatiently in her seat. Our manners tax her profoundly. Just as in the city's menagerie the lion tamer uses a whip to control behavior, my mother has perfected the Look. She uses it now on Luca, though he is so engrossed in the pleasure of his food that today it takes a kick under the table from me to gain his attention. We are her life's work, her children, and there is still so much more to be done with us.

"Still," I say, when it feels as if we may talk again, "I cannot wait to meet him. Oh, he must be most grateful to you, Father, for bringing him here. As we all are. It will be our honor and duty as a Christian family to care for him and make him feel at home in our great city."

My father frowns and exchanges a quick glance with my mother. He has been away a long time and has no doubt forgotten how much his younger daughter must say whatever comes into her mind. "I think he is quite capable of caring for himself, Alessandra," he says firmly.

I read the warning, but there is too much at stake to stop me now. I take a breath. "I have heard it said that Lorenzo the Magnificent thinks so much of the artist Botticelli that he has him eat at his table."

There is a small glittering silence. This time the Look stills me. I drop my eyes and concentrate on my plate again. Next to me I feel Tomaso's smirk of triumph.

Yet it is true enough. Sandro Botticelli does sit at the table of Lorenzo de' Medici. And the sculptor Donatello used to walk the city in a scarlet robe given in honor of his contribution to the Republic by Cosimo, Lorenzo's grandfather. My mother has often told me how as a young girl she would see him, saluted by all, people making way for him-though that might have been as much to do with his bad temper as his talent. But the sad fact is that though Florence is rife with painters I have never met one. While our family is not as strict as some, the chances of an unmarried daughter finding herself in the company of men of any description, let alone artisans, are severely limited. Of course that has not stopped me from meeting them in my mind. Everyone knows there are places in the city where workshops of art exist. The great Lorenzo himself has founded such a one and filled its rooms and gardens with sculpture and paintings from his own classical collection. I imagine a building full of light, the smell of colors like a simmering stew, the space as endless as the artists' imaginations.

My own drawings up till now have been silverpoint, laboriously scratched into boxwood, or black chalk on paper when I can find it. Most I have destroyed as unworthy and the best are hidden well away (it was made clear to me early that my sister's cross-stitching would gain more praise than any of my sketches). So I have no idea whether I can paint or not. I am like Icarus without wings. But the desire to fly was very strong in me. I think I was always looking for a Daedalus.
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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus is, on the one hand, a boldly colored pageant of a famously rich moment in history -- the momentous upheaval of culture, religion, and politics that was the Florentine Renaissance. But Dunant's sumptuously arrayed historical novel also digs under the surface of this glittering era, when wealthy patrons sponsored some of the most famous artistic creations of all time, and eager scholars brought classical philosophy to their thinking about the shape of politics and culture, infusing a new perspective into the domination of the Church over civic life. Book clubs will find that Dunant -- and her heroine, the talented, conflicted and high-spirited young Alessandra Cecchi -- offers penetrating insights into the conflicts and troubles that underlay this legendary time and place.

History itself is of course one of the most fascinating dimensions that book clubs will want to explore in the pages of The Birth of Venus. In the Florence that is home to young Alessandra Cecchi, a dizzying array of statesmen, poets, military figures, religious leaders, and artists made their mark on world history. Several times in the story, characters refer to their city as "the new Athens," the place where classical learning would again be nurtured. Alessandra is a relative of the Medici -- the ruthless aristocratic family who became patrons of some of the greatest painters, sculptors, and architects of the day. The Birth of Venus is alive with references to Botticelli, Michaelangelo, Ghirlandaio, and the towering figure of Dante.

Meanwhile, the monk Savonarola presides over the religious frenzy that swept through Florence at the end of the 15th century -- a countercurrent that threatened to undo the flowering of classical learning. This contrast provides one of the novel's most enduring themes, and while Dunant has steeped her story in Renaissance culture, modern questions about culture and morality resonate through Dunant's story, bringing its late-15th-century setting into sharp relief against issues and attitudes that might be just as relevant to 21st century society. Reading groups will enjoy the opportunity The Birth of Venus offers to discuss ways in which things have changed, and ways in which society continues to grapple with the debate between religion and secular points of view.

Nowhere in the book is this more pointed than in the questions of sexual morality -- and differing ways of looking at sexuality -- that become vitally important to Alessandra's life. As she moves from a sheltered girl's innocence, through fear, uncertainty, and jealousy in her arranged marriage, to a final acceptance of the notion that love is infinitely more complex than she once expected. She comes to view her husbands' secret life with an understanding that is in stark contrast to the Taliban-like activities of the authorities under the fanatical Savonarola. And her choices in the end -- about how to live, to preserve her own freedom, and to raise her daughter -- will have book clubs talking about the revolutionary decision and sacrifices made by countless individuals made, in order that the generations to follow might inherit a world truly reborn. Bill Tipper

Introduction and Discussion Questions from the Publisher
Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter's abilities.

But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra's parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control. Alessandra and her native city are caught between the Medici state, with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola's reactionary followers. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra's married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.

The Birth of Venus is a tour de force, the first historical novel from one of Britain's most innovative writers of literary suspense. It brings alive the history of Florence at its most dramatic period, telling a compulsively absorbing story of love, art, religion, and power through the passionate voice of Alessandra, a heroine with the same vibrancy of spirit as her beloved city.

1. Alessandra has the will and the talent to paint. She does not have the training or the social opportunity. How far does The Birth of Venus explain why, in the great roll call of artistic geniuses of the Renaissance, there are no names ofwomen?

2. The image of the serpent with a human head is a motif that runs through the novel in many different forms. What are its guises and how does its meaning shift as the novel progresses?

3. Both Alessandra and her mother in their own ways subvert and rebel against the world they are brought up in. Which one of them do you think is the happier or most fulfilled?

4. The only character in the novel who seems to have any real freedom is Erila, yet ironically she is a slave with no rights or apparent power. How is it that she can walk such an independent path when those around her are so trapped?

5. Lorenzo the Great dies early on into the novel, yet his spirit and that of his family, stalk the book both politically and culturally. What image do you get of him and the impact that the De Medici's had on Florence?

6. Alessandra's entire world is contained by her belief in God. Yet in the time she is writing there seems to be almost two different kinds of God, depending on whether you are a follower of the renaissance or of Savonarola. How does Alessandra see the difference between the two and how fairly do you think she judges them?

7. How far is Savonarola the villain of the novel?

8. How far is this a novel about a city as much as a character?

9. The novels contains many different kinds of love: intellectual, spiritual, sexual, maternal. Which moves you most and why?

10. Alessandro and her brother Tomaso are at odds with each other form the beginning of the novel. But how far should we trust Alessandra's judgement of him, given that they are in competition for the same man?

11. How much sympathy do you have for Cristoforo as a character and what kind of portrait of homosexual life in Florence do you get from his thoughts and actions?

12. Alessandra's marriage, though painful in some ways, is in other ways quite fulfilling, given the confines of the time. At a time when women were seen as so fundamentally inferior, do you think it would have been possible for them to have an equal relationship sexually and intellectually with men?

13. In 15th century there was also no word for depression, only melancholy, and no treatment. How different would suffering depression have been in time when all meaning was seen to stem from God? And why does the painter fall into this trap?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 237 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(112)

4 Star

(77)

3 Star

(27)

2 Star

(15)

1 Star

(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 237 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2008

    A Strong Novel That Fizzles in the End

    'The Birth of Venus', set in 15th Century Florence, is a story of art, intrigue, and power. Dunant captures the importance of art in the period, the struggles of women at that time. She also shows the destruction and resurrection that religious fervor can cause. Dunant did an excellent job capturing my attention throughout this book with her strong story lines, and her hints of stories yet to be unveiled later on in the book. I stayed-up for hours to read this book, and even brought it to work to read at lunch because I hungered for more! She introduces mesmerizing characters and builds the background of events so carefully, that you wonder what culmination will come of it. Unfortunately, Dunant also makes the mistake that many writers do, of finishing her work too early, in a rush to end the story. The beginning and 'meat' of the novel were outstanding, but the characters fizzled in the end, and the story line with them. The revelation of the mysteries hinted in the book are disappointing at best, and can best be described as boring and uninspired. I will give this book 4 stars because overall it was a very enjoyable read, but it is almost as if a second author came in and finished 'Part IV' after just glancing at the first three parts.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    The Birth of Venus

    For fans of historical fiction, this book will take you on a ride you¿ve never experienced. The Birth of Venus grabs your curiosity and never seems to let go. It takes you through the journey of Alessandra Cecchi a teenage girl living in 15th century Italy as she struggles to hide her passion for art. Her passion only deepens when a painter comes to paint the chapel walls of her home, but her intrigue is paused due to her marriage to a man who hold secrets bigger than hers.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2006

    Better than most!

    The earlier chapters of this book had me hooked but I must agree with some the comments about the ending it is a little disappointing. All in all, it is better than most and the historical (both events and art) back drop is enthralling.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2006

    i adored it

    Everything about this book is amazing, the rich history of Florence which Dunant paints perfectly into the reader's mind, and the struggle of women during the acme and fall of Florence. Alessandra Cecchi is a wonderful, vibrant leading character, able to keep the reader detailed in the history of the novel and the passion and love she shares for both her husband and the painter. I stayed up until 4am reading this and it truly is an amazing story, but I really wished that the painter just took Alessandra away and spent life happily ever after. But, despite that, this story is an amazing book and I highly recommend it.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 21, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    suspenseful and interesting historical background

    Set in Florence at the time of Savanarola, just after the Medeci era, this book gives life to the historical background and makes it more memorable and easier to understand. It would not be one of my all-time favorites, but if you are planning to make a trip to Florence it would be more fun to read this first than just a guidebook. There is a trick in the plot that keeps you wondering and interested throughout.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2008

    A wonderful story!

    Was a really great book. At first I was not so into it...but I kept on reading and couldnt put it down until I was done with it.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2007

    Captivating Story, Very Well Written

    I really loved this book. It was a historical fiction but also a bit of a romance novel, but always tasteful, classy, and never over emotional, sexualized or seedy. Everything was so realistic and the story of this girl was really so believable and entertaining. The book spans the life of this girl and often parallels what is happening in the city at the time. So entertaining and very believable. Very well written, plot and writing equally interesting. Highly recommend!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2007

    A reviewer

    Overrated, this novel takes a stock heroine-- bright teenaged girl near arranged marriage, considered ugly duckling, inwardly rebelling against her female role in society. Though she never does anything about it. Supposedly she is versed in the classics, but we get none of that in her viewpoint, only how she longs to paint various saints, ad nauseum. Although religion played a big role in this time, people couldn't have thought about it to the exclusion of everything else, as she virtually does. The real story is the rise and fall of Savonarola in Florence. There is a weak watered-down romance which plays only a small role. It is hard to understand how the writing itself is praised. It is workmanlike and pedestrian, nothing out of the ordinary in any book. The research appears good, but it's disappointing overall.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2008

    great story...

    ...really uninspired ending though.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2008

    I Never Even Finished It

    Historically, it was very well-researched. Unfortunately, that is the only nice thing I can say.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2007

    Displeasing.

    I read this book in a week. One very long week, if I might say so myself. I found myself concerned with the 'painter's' life more than any other aspect of the novel. I don't usually read the more modern fiction so I guess I was surprised and disgusted with its obscenities. As if there wasn't enough sex on TV. I would definately suggest Irving Stone's 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' over anything of Dunant.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2006

    Shocked...I loved it!

    I had heard good things about this book, but every time I picked it up I put it back down. I usually don't get into anything that's not more modern. However, I was blown away by how well written this was. Not only that but how fascinating the story was. As reading the reviews, it amazes me how closed minded people are about sexuality, or anything that doesn't conform to society in books. This was a great story one reason is how different this was compared to so many other books you find on bookstore shelves. I found that the characters all had such interesting stories, and characteristics. They were all so very different, yet the same in so many ways. I ran right out and bought another book by Dunant. I hope to find another intriguing book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2006

    Character Disappoints

    I was immediately enthralled with the mystery in the first chapter of the book. I then followed the story with zeal, enjoying the artistic and historic views of Florence. I felt the end of the story was preposterous, and the main character needed some character improvement. As a nun in a convent, I would have really liked it if she had done something more to help others, than to concentrate on her own fulfillment.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2006

    Fantastic Book!

    Alessandra was an incredible person - very strong individual. I don't usually read books that go into great detail with history, but this was written with such grace that I had a hard time putting it down. Sarah Dunant was at her best when she wrote this!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2006

    Historical Page-Turner

    The historical and fictional plots of this book will hook you, possibly into staying up reading later than you normally would. I found particularly interesting exactly how the fate of women in such an 'enlightened' period of history was determined by men. Although some might be turned off by how the main character seems a 'puppet', I feel that the author is painting a true picture (sorry for the unintentional pun) of how life really was. The author does an excellent job of retelling the history and weaving in several subplots as to how people were affected by the events of their time. The details of the architecture and art of the time were quite impressive and thoughtfully placed. The only disappointment I had was a lack of development of chemistry between Alessandra and the painter. It made certain parts of the plot feel forced rather than a natural occurrence. In all, a good summer read for a history buff.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2006

    Vaguely Interesting and Mildly Disjointed

    The action of this novel takes places in Florence at a time when art, lust, sin, passion, and religion collide. The book recollects the journey of naive Alessandra Cecchi, supposedly a freethinking, fiery rebel. While she matures physically, she remains, 'til the end, highly dependent. She makes foolish decision after foolish decision and never improves. Although she endures hardships, I was never able to sympathize with Alessandra. The plot alternates between speeding and plodding, and the main character is bed-ridden during crucial moments. That aside, there is enough scandalous intrigue to make me pleased with the plot. The prose has descriptions that succeed in captivating the senses. However, none of the characters are fully 'fleshed out' (pun intended). Their backstories are quickly alluded to and their own views aren't expressed. Younger readers should be cautioned due to certain potentially objectionable scenes. There is a birth description horrific enough to easily prevent teenage pregnancy forever. Overall, this is a book for mature women who enjoy romance novels and are seeking a bit of history and culture.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2006

    Outstanding writing and story

    Sarah Dunant has woven a tale that is spellbinding. From the prologue on you are engrossed in a story too exciting to put down. Her description of the time and her scenes and settings are so vivid you smell the air and hear the sounds. Florence and the history of the time and the intrigue and religious domination is a part of its history not ever told as well, as in this book. Art, sex, friendships, berayals, and intrigue fill every page. Sarah Dunant is a great writer, however this is her best. I hope she has more to come.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014

    Loved this book! From beginning to end, I was mesmerized by the

    Loved this book! From beginning to end, I was mesmerized by the language, the characters and the plot. Beautifully written and engaging.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2013

    Beautifully written

    I love the mix of history and fiction

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2013

    Preferred In the Company of the Courtesan

    I read Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan before purchasing this book. Unfortunately, I felt The Birth of Venus was lacking.

    While the picture she paints of Renaissance Florence is interesting and lively, the main character is a bit unbelievable and feels far fetched to me. Beyond that, the whole thrust of the story felt forced.

    If you are interested in historical fiction books based around Renaissance artists, I would recommend Leonardo's Swans over The Birth of Venus.

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