Synopses & Reviews
Alessandra 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. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra’s married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.
The Birth of Venus is a tour de force, the first historical novel from one of Britain’s most innovative writers of literary suspense. It brings alive the history of Florence at its most dramatic period, telling a compulsively absorbing story of love, art, religion, and power through the passionate voice of Alessandra, a heroine with the same vibrancy of spirit as her beloved city.
"[T]he author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot....Dunant's vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil." Publishers Weekly
"[A] lush and intellectually gripping novel....This is a beautifully written and captivating work." Elsa Gaztambide, Booklist
"[S]mart and engaging....Dunant has injected a kind of realpolitik into the genre, making it far more poignant and interesting." David Liss, The Washington Post Book World
"[E]nthralling....Dunant's latest profiles a strong Renaissance woman making bold choices to find fulfillment in constrained circumstances. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Sarah Dunant has given us a story of sacrifice and betrayal, set during Florence's captivity under the fanatic Savanarola. She writes like a painter, and thinks like a philosopher: juxtapositioning the humane against the animal, hope against fanaticism, creativity against destruction. The Birth of Venus is a tour de force." Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
"No real surprises in the romance department, but the depiction of Florence as Tehran under the Ayatollah is an eye-opener." Kirkus Reviews
"Simply amazing, so brilliantly written...almost intolerably exciting at times, and at others, equally poignant." Antonia Fraser
"A beautiful serpent of a novel, seductive and dangerous...full of wise guile, the most brilliant novel yet from a writer of powerful historical imagination and wicked literary gifts. Dunant's snaky tale of art, sex and Florentine hysteria consumes utterly but the experience is all pleasure." Simon Schama
"Dunant has created a vivid and compellingly believable picture of Renaissance Florence: the squalor and brutality; the confidence and vitality; the political machinations. Her research has obviously been meticulous....A magnificent novel." The Telegraph (London)
"It's to Dunant's credit that the vast quantities of historical information in this book are deployed so naturally and lightly....On the simplest level, this is an erotic and gripping thriller, but its intellectual excitement also comes from the way Dunant makes the art and philosophy of the period look new and dangerous again....Theology has rarely looked so sexy." The Independent (London)
"No one should visit Tuscany this summer without this book. It is richly textured and driven by a thrillerish fever." The Times (London)
"[Dunant's] control, pace, and instinct are well-nigh impeccable." The Financial Times
"Though The Birth of Venus has been described, for obvious reasons, as serpentine...the imaginative energy of the enterprise is clearly warmblooded, playful, even reckless more feline than reptilian." Valerie Martin, The New York Times Book Review
The Birth of Venus is a tour de force from one of Britain's most innovative thriller writers. It brings alive the history of Florence at its most dramatic period, telling a compulsively absorbing story of love, art, religion and power through the passionate voice of Alessandra, a remarkable heroine with the same vibrancy as her beloved city.
About the Author
Sarah Dunant has written eight novels and edited two books of essays. She has worked widely in print, television, and radio, and until recently hosted the leading BBC Radio arts program, Night Waves. Now a full-time writer, she is adapting her novels Transgressions and Mapping the Edge for the screen. Dunant has two children and lives in London and Florence.
Reading Group Guide
1. Alessandra has the will and the talent to be a painter. However, she does not have the training or the social opportunity she needs. How well does The Birth of Venus
explain why there are no womens names in the great roll call of artistic geniuses of the Renaissance?
2. The image of the serpent with a human head is a motif that runs through the novel in many different forms. What are its guises, and how does its meaning shift as the novel progresses?
3. In their own ways, both Alessandra and her mother subvert and rebel against the world they live in. Which one of them do you think is the happiest or most fulfilled?
4. The only character in the novel who seems to have any real freedom is Erila, so it is ironic that she is a slave with no rights or apparent power. How is it that she is able to walk an independent path when those around her are so trapped by their circumstances?
5. Lorenzo the Great dies early on in the novel, yet his spirit and that of his family stalk the book both politically and culturally. What does the book convey about him and the impact that the De Medicis had on Florence?
6. Alessandras entire world is contained by her belief in God. Yet at the time in which she is writing, there seem to exist two different versions of God, the one that prevails depending on whether the believer is a follower of the Renaissance or of Savonarola. What does Alessandra see as the difference between the two versions, and how fairly do you think she judges them?
7. To what extent is Savonarola the villain of the novel?
8. To what degree is this a novel about a city as much as a character?
9. The novel contains many different kinds of love: intellectual, spiritual, sexual, maternal. Which moves you most and why?
10. Alessandra and her brother Tomaso are at odds with each other from the beginning of the novel. To what extent should we trust Alessandras judgment of him, given that they are in competition for the same man?
11. How much sympathy do you have for Cristoforo as a character, and what image of homosexual life in Florence do you derive from his thoughts and actions?
12. Alessandras marriage, though painful in some ways, is in other ways quite fulfilling, given the confines of the time. In an era when women were seen as fundamentally inferior, do you think it would have been possible for them to have an equal relationship sexually and intellectually with men?
13. In the fifteenth century there was no word except “melancholy” for the mental state of depression, and there was no treatment for it. How different would suffering from depression have been in a time when all meaning was seen to emanate from God? And why does the painter fall into that condition?
14. The convent described at the end of the novel is based on real records and real places. If you were a woman in fifteenth-century Florence, would you have preferred to live outside or inside its walls?