Summary and book reviews of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus

By Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus

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Book Summary

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.

Chapter 1

Looking back now, I see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn't as if Florence didn't have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn't walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.

The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 women's 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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

This is an obvious fit for those who've enjoyed other historical novels with an artistic bent, such as those by Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier, and will doubtless be a popular book club choice. However, expect a little more harsh reality and a little less romance in Durant's book.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (459 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Antonia Fraser
Simply amazing, so brilliantly written...almost intolerably exciting at times, and at others, equally poignant.

Author Blurb Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire
Sarah Dunant has given us a story of sacrifice and betrayal, set during Florence's captivity under the fanatic Savonarola. 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.

Author Blurb Simon Schama
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.

The Independent (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 Times (London)

No one should visit Tuscany this summer without this book. It is richly textured and driven by a thrillerish fever.

The Financial Times

[Dunant's] control, pace, and instinct are well-nigh impeccable.

The Telegraph (London)

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.

Children's Literature - Elisabeth Greenberg

The conflicts of the priest Savonarola with his city and the Pope create a wonderful background for a coming-of-age story, but this book can be recommended only to the most mature young adult reader as it discusses explicitly sexual encounters, syphilis epidemics, religious murders, and suicide. Ages 13 up.

Publishers Weekly

Dunant's vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil. Dunant's foray into historical fiction (she is best known for her literary suspense novels) will inevitably be compared to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier readers will certainly enjoy the novel, though its meatier historical background and more robust prose style set it apart.

Kirkus Reviews

No real surprises in the romance department, but the depiction of Florence as Tehran under the Ayatollah is an eye-opener.

Booklist - Elsa Gaztambide

Dunant's lush and intellectually gripping novel is set in fourteenth-century Florence at the height of the Renaissance....This is a beautifully written and captivating work.

Library Journal - Jean Langlais

Like Susan Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia and John Faunce's Lucrezia Borgia, Dunant's latest profiles a strong Renaissance woman making bold choices to find fulfillment in constrained circumstances. Highly recommended.

The Washington Post - David Liss

Dunant has injected a kind of realpolitik into the genre, making it far more poignant and interesting.

Reader Reviews
Gwen Taylor

Worst book ever
I felt this book is a waste of time not to mention paper. I was bored throughout and I felt that there was more personal details than anything else. I would never even wish my worst enemy to read this novel.

Alyvia

Entertaining Read
The only book in Florence that I could find in English, I wasn't expecting much when I picked up this slim book. I read the book, LOVED IT, and then went around the next day in Florence, pointing out to my sister all the various different historical ...   Read More

Rickee

Captivating read
As a teacher of literature, I spend most of my reading time stuck in the middle of one of the "classics," so this was a refreshing and thoroughly fun read. I read this slim volume in an afternoon and really regretted coming to the end of Alessandra'...   Read More

kssteffe

I truly enjoyed this book....not something I would have chosen but my book group did and I am very happy with the choice. I would recommend to all.

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Beyond the Book

Sarah Dunant is a novelist, broadcaster and critic.  After leaving university she worked as an actress before starting work as a producer for BBC Radio in 1974.  She also presented Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour' and BBC Television's 'The Late Show'.  She lives in London. 

Bibliography

  • Marla Masterson series (writing as Peter Dunant with Peter Busby)
    Exterminating Angels (1983)
    Intensive Care (1986)
  • Hannah Wolfe. PI Mystery Series (won two Silver Dagger awards)
    Birth Marks (1991)
    Fatlands...

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