Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of VenusAlessandra 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.

A colleague gave me this book saying that I was going to love it and she was right. From the very first pages it was obvious that this was not your ordinary historical fiction, it really couldn't be with a nun having a tattoo of a serpent on her torso, and I looked forward to finding out how that came about.
Freedom, independent thought and pursuit of learning are prominent themes in this novel and it was interesting to see them explored in the context of Renaissance Florence. I'd always assumed that with Florence being the cradle of art and learning of that time it was a relatively progressive society where curiosity and education were encouraged for anybody who had the means to pursue it, but this novel paints a picture of a society where women were not encouraged to pursue much beyond getting married and birthing children, and a passion for learning was considered a shameful shortcoming, one to be kept a secret, a sin even. That was very surprising to me, considering how different was the world of Milan in the same period as portrayed in Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex, with Isabella d'Este openly patronizing artists and collecting art. I could hardly believe both books were set in the same era and in what we now know as the same country.
The story was full of unexpected plot twists, from the problems with Alessandra's marriage to her relationship with the painter, whose name we never find out. They kept the story moving but for me they weren't the most interesting part. Instead I preferred Alessandra's passion for art and literature, her willingness to take risks to pursue painting, and the effect that practicing her art has on her. I particularly enjoyed the section where she painted her way through the darkest depression saying that that was how she healed herself. Moreover, it was fascinating to see such literary erudition in a person so young. I am twice Alessandra's age and I haven't read the Divine Comedy even once, let alone Aristotle or Socrates. Having read a number of novels set in centuries past I'm inclined to believe that this was not unusual for nobility of that time, and every time I read about characters like Alessandra I can't help but be impressed.
What I had trouble with was character development. Majority of secondary characters were one-dimensional and sometimes even the key traits of main characters weren't all that prominent until they were stated. For example, there is much talk about Alessandra wanting to be free from the constant supervision she had in her parents' house, but I never got that vibe from her until it was expressed for the first time. It actually took me by surprise, I thought she seemed quite content, her antagonistic relationship with her brothers notwithstanding. My favorite characters in this book were Alessandra's mother, her slave Erila, and her husband Cristoforo. They had histories, secrets, and there was an energy about them that made me want to learn more about them. They were also the ones who allowed the humanity of Alessandra's character to be revealed to a greater extent, improving the novel in the process.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of a religious zealot taking hold of Florence with his teachings and the effects this has on the city. This situation and how it changes Alessandra's life and prospects is an interesting commentary on what can happen in a society if a charismatic leader wins over increasingly greater crowds and how the social landscape can change as a result.
This is an intriguing story driven by characters with plenty of secrets and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a twist.

4 comments:

  1. I've heard good things about Sarah Dunant. You've made me want to read this book!

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  2. I'll be on the lookout for her books as well, for some reason have trouble finding historical fiction to read so it's always good to have a name to look up when the mood strikes.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this but did have a problem with the ending which I thought was unconvincing. Sacred Hearts, which is set in a convent in sixteenth century Ferrara, is one of the best books I've read this year. It was one of those books where you can't stop thinking about the charecters long fter it's been finished.

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  4. thanks for sharing.

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