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Book 136: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Book 136: The Birth of Venus.
Author: Sarah Dunant, 2003.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Renaissance Italy. Art. GLBT themes.
Other Details: Paperback. 422 pages.

Alessandra is not quite fifteen when her prosperous merchant father brings a young painter back with him from Holland to adorn the walls of the new family chapel. She is fascinated by his talents and envious of his abilities and opportunities to paint to the glory of God. Soon her love of art and her lively independence are luring her into closer involvement with all sorts of taboo areas of life. On excursions into the streets of night-time Florence she observes a terrible evil stalking the city and witnesses the rise of the fiery young priest, Savanarola, who has set out to rid the city of vice, richness, even art itself.

Alessandra must make crucial decisions about the shape of her adult life, as Florence itself must choose between the old ways of the luxury-loving Medicis and the asceticism of Savanorola. And through it all, there is the painter, whose love will change everything.
- synopsis from author's website.

I first read this novel in 2008 and gave it a favourable review (Book 35 2008). When it was selected for one of my library reading groups this month I had intended to just skim it to refresh my memory but after a few pages I realised that I was enjoying it and enough details had faded to warrant a proper re-read. I found I appreciated it more the second time around.

I'd been captivated by the recent TV series Da Vinci's Demons and while this novel is set a few years on from those events there are still echoes as Florence is a city in transition with the former liberal atmosphere threatened by the new austerity following the death of Lorenzo de'Medici. This is a theme also apparent in Dunant's Sacred Hearts as the Catholic Reformation begins to restrict the freedoms accorded to convents. In The Birth of Venus the relative freedoms of women under the de'Medicis are challenged by the tide of reform represented by Savanarola, who sees women as the source of all evil. Interestingly his dictates against homosexuality are also very severe. It appears that pleasure of all kinds offends him.

The novel was well received by the group though one member did cite they found the use of some modern language off-putting though this is often an issue with historical fiction. I wasn't as bothered by this as I was on my initial read and was more interested in how well Dunant had dealt with the political and religious complexities of the period.

Sarah Dunant's website includes details of her novels and some interesting videos.
Tags: art, glbt, historical fiction
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