Review of “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant

The beginning of this book is rather startling. Sister Lucrezia of the convent of Santa Vitella outside Florence, Italy has died, having requested previously that her body not be touched, and that she be buried in her habit. Because of an outbreak of plague in a nearby village however, the nuns deem it necessary to rule it out as a cause of death, and unrobe the late sister. To their surprise, they find that Lucrezia was a girl with a serpent tattoo, one that runs from her shoulder down to her groin, where the snake’s head has the shape of a man’s face, “the head thrown back, the eyes closed as if in rapture, and the tongue, snake-long still, daring out from his mouth downward toward the opening of Sister Lucrezia’s sex.” The rest of the book looks back to tell her story.

Sister Lucrezia, formerly Alessandra Cecchi, was a resident of late 15th-early 16th century Florence. We follow her life from age 14 until her death. From girlhood, Alessandra wanted to be an artist, but roles for women at that time were quite constricted:

“…I am stuck in this house while my parents look for a husband for me. Eventually they will buy one with a good name and I will go to his house, run his household, have his children, and disappear into the fabric of his life like a pale thread of color in a tapestry.”

As soon as Alessandra starts bleeding (and therefore is officially no longer a child), her parents do indeed find her a husband, who is forty-eight. He doesn’t intrigue her like the young painter her parents hired to adorn the family chapel, but Alessandra understands what is possible and what isn’t, and becomes the wife of Cristoforo Langella.

As Alessandra’s life unfolds, simultaneously we learn about the politics of Florence, a city then rapidly falling under the spell of the fire-breathing fanatical Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola. We also get a taste of the artistic excitement in a period graced by Botticelli Donatello, Botticelli, Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Brunelleschi, among others. And we learn about the sad situation for women (not to mention gay men), and how Alessandra nevertheless manages to realize love and happiness for a time, memorialized in her skin.

Evaluation: Dunant is a talented writer of historical fiction. Her women are strong characters, and her evocation of Renaissance Florence brings to vivid life the sights and smells and colors of the time. Both this book and Sacred Hearts paint detailed and poignant pictures of what life was like for women at a time when society was in a ferment of change, but women’s options were still limited and often stifling.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2004


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24 Responses to Review of “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant

  1. Sandy says:

    Intriguing. So that is what happened to Lisbeth? Ha. I have heard that Sacred Hearts is a torturously uneventful book, but this one seems like it has alot going for it.

  2. zibilee says:

    I read this book so long ago that I couldn’t even remember if I had read it while reading your synopsis! I actually think I have read most of Dunant’s work, except for one book. I loved Sacred Hearts and think that one might be my favorite out of all of them. Great review, I am glad that you liked this one!

  3. Steph says:

    Imagine what a runaway bestseller this book would be if it were only titled “The Girl with the Serpent Tattoo”! 😉

  4. Care says:

    I enjoyed this book; I read it pre-blogging.

  5. Tricia says:

    I read The Birth of Venus some time ago and like others I enjoyed Sacred Hearts. Great review, makes me want ot read it again (I had forgotten most of it).

  6. Margot says:

    I can’t get over the tattoo. I can’t imagine no one ever seeing it. Surely her husband noticed. It must have hurt like crazy. I’m going to have to read the book.

  7. Nymeth says:

    Dunant sounds like an author I ought to be reading!

  8. I have Sacred Hearts but haven’t read it yet. I’ve also heard that not much goes on, so I’m glad to see that you enjoyed it. And this one sounds fascinating!

  9. Rural View says:

    Hmmmm! I’ve got to think about this one. Could be interesting.

  10. Darlene says:

    I’ve got both her books on my shelf and of course I would love to get to them. I am always horrified that women’s – no sorry – young girl’s lives were planned like that for them. To be married to essentially an old man in comparison to a teen is awful.

  11. Alyce says:

    I’m generally not a fan of stories that start with the ending and start at the beginning to explain why everything happened, but I did like Sacred Hearts so I’ll have to keep this one in mind. I’m intrigued by the story behind the tattoo.

  12. Iris says:

    Oh, this sounds like something I would enjoy. History, religion and strong female characters!

  13. I loved Sacred Hearts and have been meaning to read her other books since finishing it. This one sounds really good!

  14. Staci says:

    I have Sacred Hearts and keep putting it off to read. Now after this review I see I shouldn’t have done that!!

  15. marthalama says:

    I think I have to read this book. I’ve been meaning to read Sacred Heart but haven’t gotten around to it. I’ll have to get both of these books very soon.

  16. Julie P. says:

    We read this one for my book club quite a few years ago. I enjoyed it and thought it was very well written!

  17. Jenny says:

    Soooo I have slightly been wanting to read this, but I passionately hate it when books use the word “sex” as a noun to describe genitals. It is so gross! It is so much grosser than any other imaginable cutesy little way of talking about lady bits.

  18. Oh, my — that tattoo on a nun? Yep, now you’ve got me jumping onto Amazon, right about now…

  19. I loved both books but i liked this better than Sacred Hearts. I’m not sure why.

  20. Trisha says:

    Yet another book I have languishing on the TBR shelves. Great review!

  21. Alyce says:

    Got your card! Thank you! I sent you an email too (but wanted to leave a comment here in case my email went to spam.)

  22. Jenners says:

    That is a great start! It would make me want to know more. I’ve never read this author but I think my mom was raving about her books. Maybe I’ll give her a try this year.

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