I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.
The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:
No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.
So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.
The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.
I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.
The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.
As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.
The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.
Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:
And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.
Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.
And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.