SARAH KEENAN is seduced by Sarah Dunant’s (2003) tale of the girl torn between art and duty, in The Birth of Venus
Lorenzo de Medici is dead and with him his dream of Florence becoming a New Athens. Instead, the zealous monk Savonarola has a firm grip on the city and intends to build his own New Jerusalem, where all forms of art and sculpture are seen as blasphemous acts of vanity.
Sarah Dunant gloriously captures the political and social changes the people of Florence must endure during the 1490s, when even the most pious are forced to question their faith. Being a great lover of history and of Florence, Dunant was perfectly equipped to write a story of a young girl’s life during the Renaissance that was a tantalizing mix of fact and fiction. The result is The Birth of Venus - a seductive and beguiling novel that showcases love, innocence, intellect and family deception.
Alessandra Cecchi, our 14 year old protagonist, wants nothing in life except to paint, but as a girl about to come of age, she must follow in her elder sister’s footsteps and marry. Her family’s reputation and social status depend on her. However, her conniving oldest brother, Tomaso, bitterly works to ensure that her married life begins under false pretenses and, as a result, sets off a chain of events that leads us to a convent three years later.
One of the greatest historical novels I have read
Dunant delicately slips in real historical events, like the public viewing of Lorenzo de Medici’s body and the French Invasion of 1494 that followed, and builds Alessandra’s tumultuous story around them. As a reader, you can truly picture yourself walking the streets of Florence, feeling the sickly heat of their notorious summers and watching as the greatest artists in the world unveiled their creations.
This was easily one of the greatest historical novels I have ever read and will most certainly be looking for more of Dunant’s work, particularly another of her stories about the Italian Renaissance.
Written by Sarah Keenan