I was not initially thrilled by The Birth of Venus. I really loved Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts but authors are not always consistent — its complexity could have been a fluke. So when I read the prologue of The Birth of Venus, in which a pious old nun’s death exposes her weirdly erotic tattoo and her breast cancer turns out to be a hoax, I was put off. Even less did I like the first chapter, when the story scrolled back to the tempestuous teen years of Alessandra Cecchi, the clever, strong-minded heroine whose unconventional beauty and independence set her at odds with her prosperous Florentine family. I’m just not really into those smarty-pants girls who don’t understand how their looks drive men wild. Also worrisome was the fact that young Alessandra was a fledgling artist. I thought I could see how the book would develop — Alessandra would turn into a brilliant female artist, and find love, and her feistiness would bring her success.
But I kept reading, despite my mild irritation, and eventually realized that I was sorely underestimating Sarah Dunant. Yes, the feisty quality is there, and yes, the looks drive men wild. But The Birth of Venus is not principally a romance novel. It’s about the complexity of life in Florence at the very end of the fifteenth century, as Medici leadership gives way to Savonarola’s demagoguery and the resurgent church pushes back against the widespread acceptance of humanism. Perhaps we could say that it’s about the conflict between fundamentalism and liberal learning.
And then, it’s set in Florence. Painting, fresco, poetry, scholarship, a Botticelli manuscript, fabulous clothes all feature big here. Dante is quoted. The Bonfire of the Vanities is depicted. People starve and die of plague. Isn’t this why we all read historical fiction? To travel in time and place, maybe to pin down some facts in the meantime? Dunant is really good at all of this, especially the way she weaves motifs of light and dark through her descriptions. The characters, too, are more complex than they at first appear.
I did find the eventual romantic thread a little bit too pat, with its invocation of big-time artistic star power, but that’s a pretty small complaint, given the real pleasure afforded by the rest of the novel.