Monday, October 24, 2011

Travel guides in disguise | Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
This is a continuation of our series Travel guides in disguise - alternative guides for those who want a bit more than that very effective yawn - The Lonely Planet. Something that doubles up as airport reading as well as a guide. 

You'd never believe this but I struggled to find a novel based in Florence. Before you stamp your feet, I did check out E M Forster's  Room with a View and the many Micheal Didbin mysteries, all of which give me a "Oh, how lovely!" perspective. There are hoards of books involving serial killers and temperamental detectives but I wanted something that would give me an insight into the Medicis and renaissance Florence much like The Agony and The Ecstasy- see below. 

I finally settled on Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus, a renaissance coming of age novel of a young girl far too emaciated and gifted for her time. 

In a sense it is a very Italian novel; full of the drama of the time and her own fertile mind. The prologue is like the opening shot of a movie and sweeps you off your feet as a nun is found having lied about her illness and bearing a snake tatoo that winds over her body and ends in places no nun should ever peek. A new morning wakes and you see young Alessandra Checci as the precocious daughter of a wily trader who is swiftly moving up the ranks of Florentine society. Dressing Florence's elite has it's upside and part of it transfers onto the daughters, whose value in the marriage market place has considerably increased. That renaissance Florence's attitudes to marriage would strike a cord in most Indian cities today is a distressing fact that we can ignore for another day. In accordance with his rising stature the trader decides to bring in a bewildered painter to glorify their family chapel. And so Dunant paints the perfect landscape for a meeting of star crossed lovers. But before you write this plot out as a predictable love story, wait, because this is not all about them but about a young girl's choices during a time of one Florence's greatest tests. 

On one hand there is Girolamo Savonarola, the prior who brought Florence to its knees and waged war on its beauty and on the other hand there is Charles VIII who is marching through Tuscany and battling not just fiery Sienese but also a rumor of having six toes. Caught between the two, Alessandra- a budding artist in her own right, is forced to follow the path of least resistance which turns out to me something else quite entirely. Through her we see the futility of being a gifted woman in an age where the female sex is seen through the eyes of Eve, that witch who got Adam kicked out of Eden. In lieu of preparing for the next party,  she would lick at the wind for one whisper of the work of Botticelli or one glimpse of the workshops of Ghirlandaio all a stones-throw from her house yet locked to her. What I liked about the novel was the humor and the depth of the relationships that the girl has with her slave as well as her handsome brother. 

Dunant is definitely a master of her matter as she deftly invokes the period to life with an artists palette. Paintings come alive as she discusses drapery techniques and lights in flowing material.  It is her story not theirs and in that sense it is a true woman's novel. But  how does serve as a guide to Florence? While it is not The Agony and the Ecstasy, it is still  a good supplement and chronicles a key moment in the city's antiquity and an insight into the man that almost destroyed Florence and everything it represents today. 

Mandatory reading for a trip to Florence

The Agony & the Ecstasy
by Irving Stone is more than just a biography of Michelangelo. It is a journey into the heart of Italian art and a glimpse into the history of Pope's egos. Perfect to start reading on the plane ride there and plan to finish it within the first couple of days of your stay. By then you have enough time to have the story coursing through your veins and feel completely overwhelmed as you stand in front of The Deposition (The Florence Pieta), knowing everything he went through to create it. And if you are like me, you will run to Rome and visit the Sistine chapel and his Pieta at St Peter's Basilica and reach for a large handkerchief. Yes, am a sop but I cry in style! 

Buy Birth Of Venus from
Buy The Agony And The Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel Of Michelangelo from

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