Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

 Alessandra Cecchi’s father brings a young painter back from northern europe to paint the family chapel. The impact this has on her is illustrated against the backdrop of the hysteria of religious fanaticism in Renaissance Florence.

The story begins with the suspicious death of an elderly nun with a tumor that is discovered to be false. Her body has a long detailed tattoo of a serpent ending obscenely with a man’s head. The mystery then cuts into the main story with the protagonist Alessandra.

Sarah Dunant writes like an artist which compliments her book perfectly. The gore, violence, fear, sex and murder is painted across the pages vividly and beautifully.

Plautilla can move across the floor like water and sing a stave of music like a song bird, while I, who can translate both Latin and Greek faster than she or my brothers can read it, have club feet on the dance floor and a voice like a crow. Though I swear if I were to paint the scale I could do it in a flash: shining gold leaf for the top notes falling through ochres and reds into hot purple and deepest blue.

It is not necessary to know about the monk Savonarola’s grip on Renaissance Florence to enjoy this story. Dunant fills in enough background for readers who have not touched on the history of Florence before. Intertwined with the fate of the city is the fate of Alessandra and her love of painting, her passionless marriage, the painter and her relationship with her slave Erila. It is the latter that I found the most interesting in the book. I neither strongly liked nor disliked Alessandra. The book is written in first person so Dunant has created a character that is enjoyable to hear an account of the story from.

I would liked to have seen some of the story from Erila’s eyes. She is a slave not a lady and therefore is right in the thick of the politics and intrigue of the street life in Florence unlike Alessandra who is sheltered this means we get a rather distant view of the city atmosphere. Erila also has more knowledge of the world they live in and the people in it even though she knows nothing of Plato, Dante and Botticelli.

Alessandra is a likeable enough vehicle for the story and although her character is not one you’d fall in love with, Dunant’s Florence definitely is. I would re-read this book for the beautiful detail and emotive atmosphere. I recommend this book for anyone who wants a delicious portrait of religious fanaticism against humanity and art in Renaissance Florence.


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