Oh, we of little faith. Dunant rendered an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking work entitled “The Birth of Venus,“ which is set in 15th century Florence, a time when the city, which had enjoyed years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly rocked by plague, threat of French invasion, crime (in the form of a serial killer) and righteous, religious wrath.
It‘s a fascinating canvas for the author to apply her paint of words on, and the result is sensuous, moving and multi-faceted as it seamlessly blends history and imagination. For many, it will evoke Tracy Chevalier‘s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,“ but Dunant has a much different sense of characterization, style and pacing, all of which makes for an engrossing and luminous read that Chevalier fans will appreciate.
Dunant‘s heroine is a bright and strong-willed 14-year-old named Alessandra Cecchi, the daughter of a well-to-do cloth merchant. She is on the verge of leaving childhood behind to become a woman, as evidenced by her interest in the work of a painter who has come from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family‘s Florentine palazzo. It makes the story very much a coming of age tale, but quickly, the reader realizes that there is much more going her besides that and narrator Alessandra, as well:
“Looking back now, I see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn‘t as if Florence didn‘t have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn‘t walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.
The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God‘s message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ‘s miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.
I was almost ten years old when Domenico Ghirlandaio completed his frescoes for the Tornabuoni family in the central chapel of Santa Maria Novella. I remember it well, because my mother told me to. “You should remember this moment, Alessandra,“ she said. “These paintings will bring great glory to our city.“ And all those who saw them thought that they would.
My father‘s fortune was rising out of the steam of the dyeing vats in the back streets of Santa Croce then. The smell of cochineal still brings back memories of him coming home from the warehouse, the dust of crushed insects from foreign places embedded deep in his clothes. By the time the painter came to live with us in 1492-I remember the date because Lorenzo de‘ Medici died that spring-the Florentine appetite for flamboyant cloth had made us rich. Our newly completed palazzo was in the east of the city, between the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the church of Sant‘ Ambrogio. It rose four stories high around two inner courtyards, with its own small walled garden and space for my father‘s business on the ground floor. Our coat of arms adorned the outside walls, and while my mother‘s good taste curbed much of the exuberance that attends new money, we all knew it was only a matter of time before we too would be sitting for our own Gospel portraits, albeit private ones.“
Alessandra is a true child of the Renaissance, and her growing infatuation with the painter challenges the arranged marriage that her parents would have her settle into with a much older, wealthy man. The conflict created there, the changes in Alessandra and the stirrings in her heart mirror a Florence that is also going through a staggering amount of change and seeing new aspects revealed of its personality and culture.
Not all of it is as lush and romantic as what has preceded it. Growing religious suppression is being imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who wants both moral and political control. His reactionary followers are changing the face of a city that has revolved around art, education and sensual delights of all sorts, which makes for a breeding ground for violence and confrontation.
Alessandra‘s story remains central to all the subplots, and her inevitable marriage is representative of the fate of many women from the same era, but the author puts a unique spin on her situation that leads to a range of twists in the tale that continue to parallel art, love and betrayal in Florence. Through it all, danger haunts a number of richly provocative ideas about what happens when a society is faced with too much opportunity for change and turmoil, and the story picks up considerable speed as it races to tie up all the loose ends before its finale. It‘s not completely accurate to call this a thriller, yet many of the qualities necessary to that genre are there, again, giving the tale unexpected texture. Perhaps the acclaim that has surrounded this book will encourage Dunant to try her hand at more historical fiction, and the next time she does, be assured that we won‘t be waiting with bated breath next time. We‘ll just be waiting.