Historical fiction, unless it specifically centers around politics or military campaigns, seems to be a feminine genre. Hence, there tends to be quite a few books labeled as historical fiction that are, for all intents and purposes, truly romance novels. Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus rises above that tendency. The reader is allowed to explore art, religion, and politics in a fifteenth-century Italian city-state, as well as enjoy a rather tense coming-of-age story.
The Birth of Venus tells the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the younger daughter of a well-to-do Florentine cloth merchant. Unlike her sister, Plautilla, Alessandra is not a cheerfully conventional girl; unlike her brother Luca, she is intelligent and loves learning. But it is her brother Tomaso who is truly her adversary, all the more dangerous for his cleverness. They go back and forth, exchanging cruelties, until their rivalry reaches a pinnacle that threatens both of them.
Alessandra is also a very curious girl. She’s educated and sharp. She also enjoys sketching and painting, which, at the time of her early childhood in Florence, meant that she was not exactly encouraged, but not forbidden it, either. The Medicis have encouraged the arts, and, in truth, it has become a decadent city.
This is one of the things I enjoyed about this book — the political and religious climate of the city very much shapes the options and behaviors of the characters. Alessandra’s art is tolerated in her childhood, but by the time she is married, most art by people of either sex is condemned for its ostentatious and heretical nature. Women, under Savonarola’s regime, are restricted in what they are allowed to do. For someone like Alessandra, who is driven to learn and to do, this is an unbearable way to live.
She also becomes hampered in other ways. Her rivalry with Tomaso, combined with the perceived threat invading French troops cause for the city’s young virgins, leads her to a loveless marriage with Tomaso’s older gay lover. Though they get along and appreciate each other in an intellectual sense, Tomaso holds Alessandra’s husband’s heart, which hurts her deeply. The hasty marriage also causes the loss of her beloved, a painter who was a former monk.
It’s a fantastic plot, for the most part. Granted, it is a little like a romance novel, but it reads like an intelligent one. My main problem with the book is that it tends to toss things in and not tie them together in satisfactory ways. There is a subplot, for example, about gruesome murders taking place within the city in or near churches. While it’s interesting, and provides some mood, it’s puzzling as to why Alessandra would come to find out about them in all their grisly glory when she was deemed too innocent to learn about sex. Was there something about the Florentine culture that made violence more acceptable to expose to teenage girls? Perhaps sex was considered more dangerous. I have no idea, but it’s just one of the little things that made me furrow my brow a bit.
I also was a little taken aback by the African slave, Erila. I liked the fact that she was an intelligent, savvy individual who was a steadfast and loyal friend. What made me so surprised was that, while the Cecchi family owned slaves, they treated them the same or better than their servants. It struck me as a little uncommon, to say the least.
While there are these shortcomings, I thought The Birth of Venus to be a rather good piece of lighter fiction. It gives just enough substance to make you think a little bit, but not so much that it’s inappropriate for summer poolside reading (which is what I used it for).