The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

As I walked to my studio the other day, I passed through freeway park to find a book sale put on by the library. One dollar for a paperback, two for a hardback. I couldn’t help myself and so five bucks later I had some fun reading for my vacation. Of course I didn’t have much time to read due to the storm cleanup and party preparations, but I did get one, long, gloriously hot day to sit and do nothing but take in the story of Sister Lucrezia. Historical fiction is almost as fun as actual history and this one in particular was, if not too deep, at least eye opening and interesting.

I described it to a friend as Jane Austen meets Assassin’s Creed. Set in Florence during the reign of the Medici’s, the story follows the youngest daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. She is a curious and fiery young lady, resistant to ladylike pastimes but gifted with wit, learning, and a passion for painting. Of course this all was essentially forbidden to women, much less unmarked virgins so she navigates a relationship with her mother, a highly unusual marriage, and tensions in the city as the Medici’s fall from power, Florence goes through a religious revival, and power is eventually returned to the secular rulers.

The story is of particular interest to me for several reasons. First, it is a youngest daughter learning to please her family, husband, and self all at once. Obviously a young woman such as myself in today’s social climate has a far easier time, but the relationships between willful daughters and protective parents are timeless. I see in Alessandra reflections of my own past selfishness and willfulness and in her mother echoes of the wisdom and understanding of my own. I also see in the secrets and overlooked betrayals a reflection of the secrets in my own family. Revelations come to Alessandra as she comes into her own as a wife and mother and someone interested in huge political climate. Her father is not who she grew up with but in fact a powerful and recently deceased member of the Medici family. Her brother is a homosexual. The young painter her father discovers in a monetary turns out to have more talent for painting than anyone she has ever met and a powerful dynamic develops between them before his secrets of madness are revealed. Every layer that peels away reminds me of things I discovered as I got older. There are no perfect reflections but the feeling she expresses reminds me of some I experienced under similar circumstances.

Second is the social climate. Florence for some time was becoming ‘the new Athens’ and fostered wealth, art, and learning as ways to celebrate both life and god. During the years of interest in the novel, a friar in the Catholic Church begins preaching fire and brimstone, penitence and punishment. As is wont to occur in such zealotry, everyone goes overboard and this young, curious woman is affected very personally in several ways. Her family’s fortunes begin to fall, her brother is discovered to be a homosexual, something recently outlawed by the religious authorities, the young man her father hired to paint their home’s chapel begins to go insane, and her new husband turns out to be her brothers lover. The relationships are complicated and though the story wraps up a bit too neatly, it is explained away easily enough by the planning and influence of her mother and the young slave girl who has been Alessandra’s companion since childhood.

One other reason I appreciated the story is how the author anchored it to historical fact and when that was unavailable linked at least well known theories into her story. She wove a plausible history for great men and women and for great works of art that remain unexplained. It took a good five or six hours to finish but it was a compelling story with enough action and mystery and romance to keep the plot moving. The candid language was almost a shock to me but was refreshing, as were the suggested study questions at the end of the story. You could feel Alessandra’s discomfort and horror at her first sexual encounter with her husband (imagine trying to have sex with someone you find extremely unattractive. Now imagine being the unattractive one but not knowing why) and later you can feel her pleasure and enjoyment when she finds someone to share love and physical passion with. Her fear during the reign of the friar and religious authorities is palpable through the pages and can quicken the heart.

I would recommend this book fore either very light reading or for young people, between fourteen and twenty. It does have some valuable insights into the history of feminism and also the development of the Italian Renaissance. I know I enjoyed it, but I can’t promise anyone else will.