Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Birth of Venus

Posted by nliakos on October 15, 2007

by Sarah Dunant

Alessandra is a tall, awkward girl with a passion for painting, living in Florence during the time of Savonarola, the friar who inflamed the city with his abhorrence of intellect, art, beauty and finery. She is the narrator of her own story: her desire to witness the events of her time; her unfortunate marriage at the age of 15 to an older man who turns out to be in search of a cover for his homosexuality in a time when to deviate in any way from Savonarola’s fundamentalist views was very dangerous; her affair with the Dutch or Flemish artist brought to Florence by her father to cover their family chapel with frescoes. I enjoy historical novels, for they make the past come alive in a way that history texts, with their reliance on names, places, dates, and battles, cannot. I can imagine Cristoforo’s terror of being denounced and tortured; the artist’s fall into insanity; Alessandra’s courage in the face of the rising hysteria of Savonarola’s movement. She describes the “bonfire of the vanities” and other actual historical events in a way that makes them real and memorable. The reader can well imagine what it might have felt like to live during that turbulent time. Alessandra herself is torn between her disgust for Savonarola’s methods and her contempt for the corruption of the Catholic Church. Dunant does not force her character into a modern atheistic mindset, but lets her express her belief in God and the Church, as well as her confusion as to who is actually right in the battle between the friar and the Pope.

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