The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant was an absolutely fabulous read! With that glowing statement out of the way, I hope I can make you understand exactly what it was I loved about this book.
The story of Alessandra Cecchi is told in the first person perspective as the girl grows up in a rich and privileged household in 15th century Florence. From a young age she is surrounded by an overly-educated (which means, given the context of the book, educated to the level of a man) mother and a father finds his entire life’s work wrapped up in the manufacturing and selling of fine cloth. Alessandra is captivated by art from the outset, and the book opens when a young artist comes to stay with her family in order to paint the frescoes on the inside of the family chapel.
The beginning of the book takes place during the Medici reign in Florence, a time of great art and even greater luxury, where the daytime held beautiful food, colors, and smells, and the night held the capacity for carnal pleasures of all natures. The richness here is created by Dunant with some of the most densely flowing language I’ve read in a while. It’s like being wrapped up in a down-comforter of words:
“Of course I know that foreign lands breed foreign colors. My own Erila is burned black by the desert sands of North Africa from where she came, and in those days you could find any number of shades in the markets of the city, so much was Florence a honeypot for trade and commerce. But this whiteness is different, have about it the feel of damp stone and sunless skies.”
The story then follows Alessandra as she gets married right at the cusp of Florence’s transition from a luxurious city ruled by the Medici’s to a city cowering in religious fears and Christian zealotry perpetrated by Savonarola, a local preacher. Alessandra soon finds herself married to a man who appreciates her mind by not her body, and hides secretes powerful enough to cripple not only Alessandra, but her entire family. As Alessandra has children and the city of Florence becomes more and more enraged with religious violence, her family comes closer and closer to the brink of complete collapse. And through it all, Alessandra continues her wonderful obsession with art, in terms of both color and technique. And the artist, who through it all continues to work on the chapel of Alessandra’s family, grows in her mind both as a mentor and as a burgeoning sexual fantasy.
By the end of the book, Alessandra has reached the only real end she can. It’s not, in my opinion, a necessarily happy one, but it is fitting, and, at the end of it all, there is closure. I loved Dunant’s writing style and, although I wish that there were a little bit more…ending detail about a few of the B story lines, the way that she intertwined and came to satisfactory closure with the other stories was particularly admirable. This book, because of the richness, took me a bit longer to get through than I was anticipating. But in a totally good way – like when you have a really rich meal and you eat it slowly so you can savor every bite! For the whole time I was reading it, I would look forward to the end of the day when I could curl up with a few chapters of such delicious prose and such a driving story line.
I know I promised I wouldn’t gush, but I can’t help myself – it was just so fantastic. It was a GREAT first read for the Art History Challenge, and made me put more than a few books on hold about Florencian art and the Medici reign! Happy Reading, and I promise – I’ll be around more in the weeks to come, with spring break right around the corner!