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The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant (Review)

Updated on May 30, 2012
Florence, the River Arno
Florence, the River Arno | Source

Ahh, lovely Florence. City of art and the House of Medici! Place of learning and the home of the Uffizi! When I had the good fortune to visit in 1996, I had wondered what life would have been like hundreds of years ago among the twisting alleyways, numerous palazzos, and the bridges over the dark and chilly River Arno.

I was overjoyed when I came across The Birth of Venus… I knew I had found what I was searching for.

Imagine the city in the tumultuous times of the Renaissance. The daughter of a rich textile merchant, gangly, gifted, and headstrong almost-fifteen Alessandra Cecchi has been allowed to indulge in drawing, learning, and questioning anything and everything. Her elder brothers constantly vex her about her less than fashionable figure and habit of reading, and her pretty elder sister is already betrothed. Her worldly and intelligent mother continually attempts to teach Alessandra life lessons that will improve her chances of finding a suitable mate.

But when her father contracts a young painter from the country to create frescoes in the family’s private chapel (as is the custom for the wealthy), Alessandra feels a kinship she has never felt before. Failing to recognize her burgeoning feelings as attraction, she inelegantly demands that the young artist judge her work and teach her to draw and paint. After he clumsily refuses, she is torn and anxiously perseverates until the next moment she can see him. He is never far from her thoughts, even when she becomes marriageable and receives a proposal.

Florentine architecture
Florentine architecture | Source

Although wary of arranged marriage and itching to better understand her beloved city, she imagines a grand gesture of romantic love. Alessandra accepts the proposal from a significantly older, wealthy man in order to keep both families above the suspicion of political leanings toward the advocates of architecture and luxury-loving Medici family… and the freedom to engage in her art and explore her politically charged city. Twists and turns abound as her life is turned upside down.

The writing is superb – although a teenager, Alessandra must take on the responsibilities of a married woman, and the reader feels her confusion and conflict. This makes it an effective coming-of-age story. The Birth of Venus also does well as a historical novel. Dunant clearly did her research, and it shows. And yet we never learn the name of the young painter who has so captured Alessandra's heart.

But don’t worry. Although the names of Big Artists stick their noses out every once in a while (Hello, Leonardo! Yoo hoo, Bruneschelli! Hi, Botticelli!) it’s not overbearing. I especially enjoyed Dunant's descriptions of sculpture and artwork.

The story of the overthrow of the Medici family is described tastefully, with the French occupation making a splash. As the over-zealous monk Savonarola commandeers control of Florence without canonical authority and his reactionary followers practically knock themselves out collecting for the Bonfire of the Vanities, Alessandra continues to question humanity and what is important in life.

A story of secret passions, familial strife, and political unrest, this book is also full of vivid, descriptive passages about life in Florence. One can easily imagine the colors at Alessandra’s father’s dye factories and the stink of plague-ridden bodies, the roast capons at the wedding banquets and the shouting in the streets. You can get lost in this book… I know I did, twice. And I'm not the only one – according to an online article by the New York Times, a movie version of the book has been in development in the U.S. since 2010.

And now for theclevercat’s rating. Here you are: bright red for the fiery glow of intoxicating love. Five of five stars!


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    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi, Jools99! Thanks for stopping by and for the compliment. :^)

      One of my favorite things about the book is the point of view... she seems like someone I'd totally be friends with!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Sounds intriguing and I do like a novel set in a historic location and time, will check it out sometime - nice review.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Brainy Bunny, thanks! Sounds like it's right up my alley.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      This reminds me of a book I read this past summer. It was called The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland. It was historical fiction about the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, who also lived in Florence and hobnobbed with the greats (including Galileo and the Medicis). I had never heard of the book before, so I picked it up on a whim at a used book store, but apparently it was a NYT bestseller back in 2002. Check it out!

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Flickr, thanks for commenting! Absolutely visit the Uffizi, just get tickets ahead of time. The line to get in can be worse than a concert!

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      Flickr 5 years ago

      Venus...some day i shall visit thee. thanks for sharing.

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