Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant

After I finally finished reading the Bourne book, I started The Birth of Venus. This is one of the books I picked up during my most recent Books-A-Million shopping spree. I don't believe I'd heard of the book or its author before; it merely caught my eye, especially because this one was part of a buy-two-get-one-free offer going on at the time. Funny thing is, a month later this same book caught my eye at Sam's, and I entertained the idea of buying it until I remembered I already had.

Another thing that interested me in this book was its historical setting in Florence during the Italian Renaissance, just as the fundamentalist monk Savonarola is rising to power. I had the good fortune to make my first (and hopefully not my last) trip to Florence just this year, and in fact I recall the plaque in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria which marked the place where Savonarola was burned at the stake in the year 1498.

Preconceived notions about the book: The back mentions a young painter who is affiliated with the main character's family in Florence. This tidbit, together with the book's title, made me wonder if perhaps that young painter would turn out to be Botticelli, who painted "The Birth of Venus" you see below. That painting is still on display at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, and--hoping this will not sound like bragging, although I'm afraid it will, but things like this are just too exciting to me to not mention it--I got to see this painting in person during my trip. Of course there are other paintings with the same title, but in my mind this one is the most famous. Anyhow, I found out fairly quickly that I was wrong about the painter's identity. Botticelli is mentioned a few times in the book, as is the painting below, along with some other work he did to go with Dante's Divine Comedy, but the artist in this book was definitely not Botticelli. In fact, he is actually never named; he is always and solely referred to as "the painter."

I normally do not favor reading historical fiction for two reasons. First, history tends to bore me (there, I've admitted it). Second, except in cases where I already know the facts (which isn't often), I never know for sure which parts are history and which parts are fiction. But I was eager to read this book since I already know a little bit about the history of that time in Florence (which might well be called that city's "heyday"), and because I foresaw that I would frequently be given the opportunity to picture the setting perfectly in my mind since I've actually seen it in real life! In this respect I was not disappointed. The majority of the novel takes place indoors, but there were plenty of scenes out in the city that took me back to the façades of the beautiful old buildings in my memory.

Several times in this book I found myself wondering, Now what did they mean by that? I wish I had marked these parts down because now I can only remember two of them, and I would really like to reread those parts now that I've finished the book and see if they make more sense now. Here is the first one I remember: At one point, Alessandra's mother insults her by comparing her to a young woman in a painting who is "engaged in such earnest conversation with the young man. I wonder how well her talk of philosophy is keeping his mind on higher things." I guess this means that, rather than sharpening a young man's mind with philosophical talk, a young woman should either A) try to keep his mind on her, which makes sense for that era of coquetry, or B) try to keep his mind on God, which is what I would assume "higher things" to mean; this second explanation also fits the time frame, but I don't see how talk of philosophy would obscure thoughts of God.

My second remembered point of confusion was answered quickly. When Alessandra mourns the fact that her daughter would grow up both without her father and her blood grandfather, I began to flip back to try to find out if her father had died and I had missed it. But as I read on I realized soon enough that this meant Alessandra had figured out the father she'd grown up with was not her father by blood. I can't understand why I didn't pick up on this right away, since I had already suspected Plautilla and Tomaso were not her full brother and sister (I wasn't sure about Luca). Plautilla and Tomaso were so nice-looking but dim-witted, while Alessandra wasn't much to look at but was a very intelligent girl. (The reason I wasn't sure about Luca was because the poor guy was both dim-witted and ugly).

As far as the remainder of the book, I enjoyed reading about the passion for art held by several of the main characters (Alessandra, the painter, and Christoforo), which reminded me of books like Girl With a Pearl Earring, or My Name is Asher Lev. I was intrigued by the secrets for which I sought answers: How and why did the old nun end up with the awesome serpent tattoo all over her torso? Why did she fake the tumor that was supposed to have caused her death? The story was given an extra shiver with the brutal murders that ran through the plot like a bloody thread (it turned out that the killings were committed by one of Savonarola's followers, Father Brunetto Datto... an example of a case where I can't tell fact from fiction in a historical novel, but I googled him and found nothing, so I assume that part of the story was a fabrication). And, although much forshadowing hinted at the fact that Alessandro's marriage to Christoforo would not be a perfect one, I never guessed the cause for their sorrows until it was spelled out for me.

This is not a very cinematic book and I don't think it would translate well to screen, but I find it funny to note that in spite of this I continually pictured Christoforo as played by Gary Oldman, similar to his role as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies (though never as disheveled and frantic as he was just after his release from Azkaban).

I enjoyed this book and found it very well-written, but now that I've read it I feel like I would have been just as happy borrowing it from the library as owning it. It's not like The Monsters of Templeton which I disliked so much that I donated it to the library because I knew I'd never want to read it again, but it's definitely not like The Amnesiac or The Time Traveler's Wife which I loved and will certainly read again someday.


aph08 said...

I had some discussions with my mom regarding this book since as you noted, many things were hinted at and or implied. We both felt the artist was supposed to be Michelangelo.

Kathy said...

I may be misreading it, but--do you still have a copy of the book you can look at? Michelangelo was mentioned, but I thought he was one of the artists who "the painter" would meet with in the middle of the night to sketch dead bodies--the one whose white cedar crucifix (see pg 242) was so exquisite that "the painter" lost all confidence in his own art. Pgs 369/370 also seem to say that they were 2 different artists. My opinion is that "the painter" is a completely imaginary character, which gave the author more flexibility without having to be constrained by historical fact in his case.

But see, this is what is so much fun in discussing a book with someone else who has read it! I remember one time in Book Club we read "The Last Time They Met" by Anita Shreve and (this was a book I really liked, so I won't ruin it for you in case you haven't read it yet and want to) something is revealed at the end. One of the ladies didn't read it the way everyone else did, but even after we showed her why we thought it said what we thought, she still disagreed and stuck with her original opinion!