Two or three years ago I read The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant’s historical novel set in Renaissance Florence, Italy, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the time I was sorry to find Dunant had not written other books with a historical setting, but this has now been redressed. I was certainly not disappointed with this new novel though the characters and the greater emphasis on painting of the first was more to my liking. This book is set in Venice, about which I admit to being fascinated and would love to visit. Sarah Dunant has worked in theatre, radio and television, regularly appearing on literary programmes and the author’s note and acknowledgements show that this book is well researched. Dunant writes some very attractive descriptive passages about Venice which are worth repeating: the first about the unique layout of the city and the second on the unusual quality of light so widely celebrated by artists.
“…I see Venice as a series of bigger and smaller circles, coalescing and overlapping, each one a filigree of land and water, like the lace pieces that the nuns produce as presents for their relatives.”
“Imagine all those rich houses with their inlays and frescoes, or the great mosaics on San Marco. Every one of them is made from a thousand tiny fragments of coloured glass, though of course you don’t notice that when you first see them because your eye makes the picture whole.
Now look back at the water again. Squeeze your eyes, tight. See? It’s the same, yes? A surface made up of millions of fragments of water lit by the sun. And it’s not only the sea. Think of the canals, the way the houses reflect into them, still, perfect, like images in a mirror; only when the wind blows or a boat goes by, the image breaks and trembles.”
The book opens with a picture of the opulent and colourful lifestyle of the main characters, the courtesan Fiametta Bianchini and her dwarf companion Bucino Teodoldi just before Rome is razed. They barely escape with their lives and a few hastily swallowed jewels and set off to Venice to rebuild their lives and fortunes.
As Fiametta and Bucino start again in this renowned city some interesting characters cross their threshold: various visitors and clients, some fictional and others based on names recorded in the records of the city – Abdullah Pashna, a handsome Turk from Constantinople, the writer Pietro Aretino and the painter Tiziano Vecellio, more well known ‘Titian’. (His famous painting ‘The Venus of Urbino’, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence and shown on the cover of the novel is written into the plotline as a portrait of Fiametta.) One particularly significant relationship is made with a healer known as La Draga, whose blindness and twisted gait means that many are in awe of her unusual powers. Contact with this woman, however, will have repercussions for them all.