“Simply amazing, so brilliantly written...almost intolerably exciting at times, and at others, equally poignant.”
“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.”
“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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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: SARecommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 403p., Ages 15 to adult.
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.
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.
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