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The Birth of Venus: A Novel
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Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family¡¯s Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter¡¯s abilities.

But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra¡¯s parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control. Alessandra and her native city are caught between the Medici state, with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola¡¯s reactionary followers. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra¡¯s married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.

The Birth of Venus is a tour de force, the first historical novel from one of Britain¡¯s most innovative writers of literary suspense. It brings alive the history of Florence at its most dramatic period, telling a compulsively absorbing story of love, art, religion, and power through the passionate voice of Alessandra, a heroine with the same vibrancy of spirit as her beloved city.

From the Hardcover edition.

Sarah Dunant's gorgeous and mesmerizing novel, Birth of Venus, draws readers into a turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. Dunant masterfully blends fact and fiction, seamlessly interweaving Florentine history with the coming-of-age story of a spirited 14-year-old girl. As Florence struggles in Savonarola's grip, a serial killer stalks the streets, the French invaders creep closer, and young Alessandra Cecchi must surrender her "childish" dreams and navigate her way into womanhood. Readers are quickly seduced by the simplicity of her unconventional passions that are more artistic than domestic:

Dancing is one of the many things I should be good at that I am not. Unlike my sister. Plautilla can move across the floor like water and sing a stave of music like a song bird, while I, who can translate both Latin and Greek faster than she or my brothers can read it, have club feet on the dance floor and a voice like a crow. Though I swear if I were to paint the scale I could do it in a flash: shining gold leaf for the top notes falling through ochres and reds into hot purple and deepest blue.

Alessandra's story, though central, is only one part of this multi-faceted and complex historical novel. Dunant paints a fascinating array of women onto her dark canvas, each representing the various fates of early Renaissance women: Alessandra's lovely (if simple) sister Plautilla is interested only in marrying rich and presiding over a household; the brave Erila, Alessandra's North African servant (and willing accomplice) has such a frank understanding of the limitations of her sex that she often escapes them; and Signora Cecchi, Alessandra's beautiful but weary mother tries to encourage yet temper the passions of her wayward daughter.

A luminous and lush novel, The Birth of Venus, at its heart, is a mysterious and sensual story with razor-sharp teeth. Like Alessandra, Dunant has a painter's eye--her writing is rich and evocative, luxuriating in colors and textures of the city, the people, and the art of 15th-century Florence. Reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, but with sensual splashes of color and the occasional thrill of fear, Dunant's novel is both exciting and enchanting. --Daphne Durham

Customer Reviews:

  • A wonderful book
    OK this book is a great read. All things are not historically accurate but that is why it is called fiction....more info
  • What a lovely book!
    I was given this book as a present and was hooked from page one. Set in Florence during the Reinassance, it is a very believable picture of life back then, described in such vivid, well researched detail. The story itself is mysterious, gripping and moving. Definitely worth reading if you like historical fiction and also if you don't! A page-turner....more info
  • Gory and Troubling.
    This book is full of detailed descriptions of heinous crimes and gory diseases. I was expecting to read about art in the romantic Italy of the past and I couldn't listen for more than 2.5 hours. As a writer, the only value I can gain from this book is as a contrast to other similar books. Listen to Karen Essex's Leonardo's Swan and then to this book and see, how at every turn and with every choice the author makes, one can be a romantic (like Essex) or a naturalist (like Dunant). Personally, I prefer the former. I get enough gory crimes from the news....more info
  • Phenomenal novel
    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. There are so few really excellent novels about women and art. This is one of them. I truly felt as if I were in Florence in the 15th/16th century. I read this while listening to Italian opera and the experience seemed to take me out of my body and into the book. Not only is the plot excellent, the characters are well defined. She obviously has done her research. Sarah Dunant has become a favorite author. This book was of the kind you just cannot put down. I started her Courtesan novel and that too is delighting me. Thank you Sarah Dunant on behalf of all female artists!...more info
  • Amusing.
    The story is not predicatable, the main character is both sweet and fiesty, the history is present but not excessive, and the book entertained me. That's all I can ask of it. I didn't want to put it down, except for a graphic childbirth scene (yuck.) Just keep in mind when reading this book that things were very different then, women thought very differently then they do now. You may not agree with all the views in this book, but you don't have to. It's for entertainment! And it's great!...more info
  • Ah, Florence...
    3.5 stars. Ms. Dunant does a remarkable job of recapturing Florence of the Medici family, patrons of the Italian Renaissance, and of the turbulent times of the mad monk, Savonarola.

    It was such a pleasure reading about everyday life in Florence of that era. The descriptions of Savonarola's speeches and of the stir he created among the Florentine were amazing, my favorites.

    This was not the first historical novel I've read with the theme of the young woman marrying the "wrong" man (I don't want to spoil this book for other readers, so I won't say why he was unsuitable). Still, Ms. Dunant gave the subject a fresh, interesting approach. I can't say that I was surprised but I did feel the heroine's angst and disappointment on her wedding night. That was a very sad moment. Difficult to read, as a woman.

    Strangely, the parts I didn't like were the characters. I pretty much disliked all of Alessandra's relations. And I thought Alessandra herself was weak, easily controlled, and childish. I know she was very young, but in those days 15 year old girls married and had children. Some of them held court and carried out secret political intrigues. The women of the age were as remarkable as the men - if not more so. Alessandra never grows up, never evolves, always ready to throw in the towel--up to the very end. What she does in the end was so unreasonable to me. I didn't get it. That was the best Alessandra could do? I couldn't understand the reasoning behind her decision and felt that the author was looking for a way to wrap up the book and came up with a blank. It made no sense to me. Another thing I didn't like about Alessandra was her relationship with her old slave woman. She let that weird servant rule her life, really control her and dictate her actions, even when Alessandra became a widow. Obviously the author meant to take this toward the "surprise" ending. But this only made it worse. So I have to say that I didn't like the main character, and her story was okay until the middle. From that point the book went downhill for me.

    Also, I found the romantic subplot with the painter lukewarm at best (the garden scene was dead boring). I was disappointed at feeling so disconnected from the two lovers to the point that I really didn't care if they were together or not. The melodrama and overdone tragedy didn't get a single heart clenching from me.

    Still, I have to say that this book is worth reading. Absolutely. Because the premise is fantastic. I love well-researched books with vivid period detail. This book had richness, a vibrant, authentic atmosphere, and included interesting facts about Renaissance Florence that I didn't know.

    Read this book for the dazzling setting and the fascinating portrayal of the forward-thinking Florentine who fell under the spell of a fanatic madman. The parts about the city life were riveting! ...more info
  • Sumptuous and Elegant--A Sensual Treat
    I picked this book up on a whim--thank God I did! You have only to read the prologue to see the startling and powerful skill with which Dunant pens her tale. The Birth of Venus chronicles the life of a Florentine girl named Alessandra Cecchi, who lives during the reign of the infamous Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola. Dunant gracefully integrates Florence's story with Alessandra's. In particular it focuses on Alessandra's marriage to a husband who shares her intellectual passions but not her sensual ones, and her intense romance for a haunted young painter living in her farther's house.

    Dunant captures the Florentine spirit in this joy of a novel. She balances the sensual/spiritual dichotomy that defined Renaissance Italy along with the religious hysteria brought about by Savonarola's reign. Alessandra is an excellent heroine; passionate and artistic while still remaining believable. She does not fall prey to that error that so many historical fiction writers make; i.e., making their female characters act in a manner so unfitting of their time period that the character seems more an anachronism than anything else(I'm looking at you, Philippa Gregory).

    And, thank God, Dunant can actually write a sex scene. So many authors I know handle them clumsily, but Dunant pens the erotic elements of the book with a deft, delicate touch. She writes the book with a genuine reverence for and understanding of the art of the period--an essential element of any book dealing with Italy in this time period. Highest marks to Sarah Dunant for a true work of art. ...more info
  • A wonderful visit to Renaissance Florence
    Recommended by a friend, I found this book charming. Having visited Florence in the past and being a big fan of Renaissance Art, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Seeing the world through Alessandra Cecchi's eyes brought me into the art and intrique of 15th Century Florence. I found the book interesting from the start and it held my interest thoughout wondering what fate would befall the precosious Alessandra, her family and the mysterious painter under the rule of the radical monk, Savonarola. If you plan to visit Florence this would be a fun book to read before going. For a more serious book on the Renaisance you might read Paul Johnson's short history "The Renaissance"....more info
  • Renaissance Awakening
    Dunant weaves what seems like a modern day soap opera into the entrancing story of Florence in the Renaissance. Her detailed descriptions of the city during that time captured me and I couldn't put this book down - it was a real treat! Yes, the story seems a little new age for that time and place but it might not have been as farfetched for that time and place as I or some other reviewers here think. The Renaissance was a raw awakening of the senses, and Dunant captures that not only in her vivid descriptions of the beautiful city of Florence but also in her characters who I connected with in so many different ways. The main cast centers on a family. Mainly the mother and her children the main character being Alessandra who is the youngest and is considered the "brainy" awkward teenager who is self conscience, her sister who is of course more beautiful and girly, and the two brothers - one who is a man's man and the other who is vain as well. The other main characters not in the family are the lovers of Alessandra and one of the brothers. The ending of this book was a somber delight. I loved this book and I hope you will enjoy as well - especially a good read if you are wanting to go to Florence or have been to Florence. ...more info
  • Scents, Sights, and Sounds
    I purchased this book with the intention that, like any other book I pick up on a whim, it would sit on an anxious, lonely 2" shelf space for about 6 months before I actually sat down to the job of reading it. However, fate had another course and I was invited to join a group of hunters out into the desert so I packed the newly aquired "piece" in my backback. Now, I'm not even remotely a huntress so I stuck to environs much more suitable for comfort and passivity (hunting is a geurre of kinds). Swaddled in a musty old blanket in the back of a "vintage" Airstream, guarded by two vanilla-haired vigilante hounds, I set off on a journey with an adolescent Florentine as my guide. The hunting party came back, shared their desperate and now deceased captives, and still I continued to read on. I finished the book by morning light and was in a haze through the remainder of the outting; beguiled by the descriptions of textiles (I hold a Bachelor of Science in Fashion), and intoxicated with the invocation of scents and sounds; vibrant evidences of well lived lives of a time gone by....more info
  • Great...up until the end
    This book starts off really well, a mysterious tattoo on a deceased nun, a fake tumor discovered on her body....then transition to a young girl in Renaissance Florence. Does she become the nun? Why did she fake the tumor? How did she get the tattoo and why?

    And while the main part of the book is interesting with it's various characters, allusions to world historical events and plot twists (c'mon who saw the wedding night revelation coming, huh??), I feel as though Dunant rushed through the ending to make sense of the introduction. My suggestion would be to read the book without the introduction and ending and focus on the middle part. It's a complete story in itself and make a lot more sense.

    Oh, and finding out the anonymous painter with whom Alessandra has been obsessed for her entire adult life is really the famous Michelangelo....was trite. It would have been better to keep him anonymous.

    Overall, a nice, fun read....more info
  • Great
    This was a beautiful book. So far Ms. Dunant has not let me down. Not only does she tell a marvelous story, you are learning along the way. I feel like I am in the room as the story is unfolding. Beautiful!...more info
  • Inspiring, romantic, and incredibly well written
    Sarah Dunant's book is the best book I have ever read. The story takes place in Italy and shares its very explicit history with a wonderful storyline. The painter and Alessandra's love was well portrayed and very romantic. The rhythm of the story was very clear and entertaining. It was a very fun read. I found myself not being able to put it down. I highly suggest this book to anyone who is an avid reader....more info
  • Writing so evocative, you can smell the Florence air...
    This book is immediately captivating. The author so cleverly spins a prologue that is oozing with mystery and intrigue and thereby sets incredibly high expectations for a novel that is incapable of disappointing. The writing is immaculate. Dunant will take your hand and lead you blindfolded into the city of Florence...the descriptions and level of detail are so engrossing that you are in effect living vicariously through Alessandra Cecci...This is a truly incredible book whose pages you will race through with an insatiable hunger. If you are an art lover you will especially appreciate the brush strokes that this artist paints. Florence comes alive under her hands.

    The book is split into three parts that span the life of the narrator, Alessandra Cecci. We are introduced to her as a young rebellious and rambunctious child whose curiosity and love of art arm her with an unfaltering determination. In an era flagged by conservatism and a laundry list of taboos, Alessandra makes room for excitement and mischief in an otherwise orderly world. The characters in these pages are brilliantly conceived and very skillfully woven into the story. The Birth of Venus is full of unexpected twists and turns that make this book truly un-put-downable!!
    ...more info
  • A Very Touching Book
    Sometimes, if you're in the right frame of mind and the author is very good, you can become deeply involved with a character in a book and he or she can become a friend that you may never forget. I feel this way about Alessandra, the main protagonist of this well written and realistic book.

    The book is set in the late 1400s through the early 1500s in Florence, Italy, in a time that religious zealots, not necessarily authorized by the Pope, are cleaning up the impure sinners of the time, and even burning some of the beautiful artwork and overly fancy clothing and other luxuries of the wealthy.

    Alessandra is a young, intelligent, talented, although not particulary beautiful, young woman who becomes attracted to a very shy painter who is brought to the city to paint religious scenes on the walls and ceilings of one of the churches in Florence. She is young, mischievous, willing to bend some rules to innocently visit the painter. But the relationship is not to be and Alessandra's parents arrange a marriage to an older man who is a close friend of her brother.

    So, at the ripe old age of 16, she is married to the wrong man, in love with another, but still very desirous of living a proper religious life.

    I won't give away the story, but it is poignant and touching and as I read the last few chapters of the book, I was hit by a wave of emotion and love for this character because of what she has endured in her life and the brave and sacrificing way she handles it.

    This is a great book, almost five stars. ...more info
  • Birth of Venus
    This book takes you back through the years to 16th century Florence seen through the eyes of a young girl. It also provides an interesting insight into Italian politics and art of the time. Alessandra Cecchi is forced into an early marriage with a much older man who is homosexual but wants a son, while her true love is a young destitute painter that her father brings home to decorate their private chapel. The experiences she goes through make this book impossible to put down. A must read for lovers of historical fiction....more info
  • Best of historical fiction!
    This is one of the best books I have ever read. The only thing wrong with it is that it had to come to an end. I traveled to Italy last year and visited Florence while there. Since my trip I have been driven to read about Florence and Venice from an historical perspective. This book did not disappoint in that aspect or in the characters. To say I became engrossed is an understatement: the main character of Alessandra Cecchi, the "painter", the Renaissance, and the turbulence in Florence at the time all blended to make a book I couldn't put down. I was very sad when it ended.
    Also, don't miss "In the Company of the Courtesan" by the same author. This takes place in Venice in the 1500's and is just as engrossing....more info
  • Very entertaining
    The Birth of Venus begins with the death of an older nun, whose manuscript of her life is found after her death. We know who she is, what we don't know is how she came to this convent. So begins the tale of Alessandra Checci, daughter of a wealthy Florentine merchant.

    Alessandra is a bright, inquisitive and impetuous fifteen year old girl who's dream of becoming a painter is impossible, considering the mores of 15th century Florence, and the role of women at that time - to marry and bear children, period. When Alessandra's father hires an artist, referred to throughout the book as the painter, to create fresco's for their family chapel, Alessandra finds herself repeatedly drawn to him, despite knowing that they can never be more than painter and subject. As the city of Florence is thrown into turmoil by the rise in power of the fanatical monk Savonarola, so too does Alessandra's life take many surprising twists and turns.

    I loved this book and the story, which was often very surprising. Just when you believe the story is heading in one way, a clever twist takes it in another. I loved the characters of the women in this book, Alessandra; reckless and brave, Erila; the wise and compassionate slave and Alessandra's mother, a strong and beautiful woman trying to tame her impetuous daughter. I learned quite a bit of Italian history that I had no prior knowledge of in this enchanting and very entertaining tale.
    ...more info
  • Romantic, historic novel
    I really enjoyed reading this novel. I live in Florence and could recognice the places and the historic happenings in the novel. Imagining how it would have been walking the streets at that time. I can recommend the novel to everyone. Happy reading...more info
  • Beautiful... (4.5 Stars)
    I bought this book and Sarah Dunant's newest book, "In The Company of the Courtesan", at the same time. I read "Courtesan" first and was fairly disappointed (see my review). Because I had already bought "Venus", I decided to give it a go. This book was beautiful and compelling and even a week after I have finished it, I find myself thinking about the story. The author captures the main character's voice perfectly. I felt like I truly knew Alessandra. Unlike "Courtesan", the characters in this book are very relatable and substantial. I felt their pain, passion, and joy. My only complaint is that the story was too short. Selfishly I could say that the last chapter feels rushed, but only because I wanted more! I wanted Alessandra and her painter's story to continue so I could share their experiences. If I could rate "The Birth of Venus" 4.5 stars, I probably would, but I rounded up because of the way I felt while I was reading the story. ...more info
  • Hard to put the book down..
    Enjoyed the dynamic characters and historical perspective. Found womens' role/limitations in society during that time period and the religious beliefs to be fascinating food for thought....more info
  • One of my all time favorite books
    I could not put this book down, it was wonderful. This was my first historical fiction book, and I was enthralled right from the beginning. I would highly recommend this book....more info
  • Enchanting and Captivating Fiction
    This novel is an enchanting read. We experience Florence in the days following the death of one of the Medici through the eyes and mind of Alessandra Cecchi, a young woman of a well-to-do family, whose intellectual leanings make her an oddity in her household. The coming-of-age story is enriched by the detailed background of Florence.

    The best aspects of this book are:

    - The connections between the characters. Some of Alessandra's conversations with her mother, her sister, her husband and her slave Erila, are moving - sometimes light, sometimes profound. You feel love spill out of them. I confess I returned to a number of the later conversations and read them over and over.

    - The attitude toward that religious firebrand, the hellfire preaching monk Savonarola. Although Alessandra's life is affected by the city's reaction to this monk, we also sense her interest in other aspects of life, and her ambivalence towards his preaching. It's nice to see that her reaction was neither black nor white but more complex.

    - The texture of the description: the richness of the colors, the dyes, the cathedral, the clothing, the carving, the pigments that Alessandra mixes herself - these are all enhanced by Alessandra's passion for art.

    - The point of view of the intelligent young woman, with the awkwardness associated dancing, menstruation and looking for a husband, encountering many of life's situations for the first time.

    The worst aspects of this book are:

    - There may be problems with some of the historical part of this historical fiction. For example:

    Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo overlapped, but Leonardo was older than Michelangelo and very well known. A passage in the novel implies the reverse.

    Also, if the most of the novel's action occurs in 1492 or shortly thereafter, it's hard to see how there could be dyes from the West Indies. Columbus did not return from his initial voyage until 1493.

    So, readers may want to check other information against other sources before using the novel as a basis for facts.

    - Most of the frame story, although interesting and entertaining, feels retrofitted to the rest of the book. Although a connection is drawn for us, that connection seems strained, and the older Alessandra (as well as the older painter) seem to be completely different characters, whose motives and actions bear little resemblance to the characters of the earlier days. However, the story which takes place earlier is vibrant and passionate.
    ...more info
  • Bravo, Alessandra!
    "And such was the sound that the chorus made together that to have been a part of it all was enough for me."

    So ends this intriguing book. It is an interesting experience for me as a man to read a book by a woman about a woman in an intensely masculine culture--but a woman who accomplished extraordinary things within that culture. In late 15th and early 16th century Florence, painting was considered an unsuitable activity for women. Alessandra Cecchi, however, managed to find her way through it and accomplish the unprecedented. She is not a superwoman. She never loses her faith in God or the Catholic Church. She passes through puberty, an unusual marriage, childbirth, and a Taliban-like imposition of public morality. Yet she winds up painting a chapel in a nunnery full of nuns with zest for life and the arts.

    Finally, Alessandra, known in the monastery as Sister Lucrezia, realizes she has accomplished all she could hope for in life. It was much more than she could have expected. She feels that although she has not been the most accomplished artist in Rennaissance Italy, she has been one of the large number of voices that were part of it. Thus she ends her autobiography, contented, with the statement I have quoted at the beginning of this review. Bravo, Alessandra! You lived your dream....more info
  • Good Trashy Summer Read
    ...and definitely a fun companion to the Lonely Planet if you are traveling in (or have traveled/lived) in Florence. Don't expect it to contain great prose (I find the fictional English translation from Renaissance Italian to be...well, very fake! Perhaps I'm just too old to remember, but I found the voice of the 14 year old narrator to be annoyingly unauthentic!), inspire any philosophical musing, satisfy your intellectual hunger, or feed your romantic notions about love (this is really about lust, even lust that arosed from a shared passion for art.) It did, however, make me want to re-visit all the places that were mentioned and trace the steps of the two main characters in the novel. Like many of the other reviewers, it also intrigued me to do a little Google search of Flemish artists in Florence during that period to try to guess who the painter character may be based on. So, enjoy it for what it is: a good trashy summer read, a cross between Harlequin romance and the Da Vinci Code (though I think the Da Vinci Code is better written.) Otherwise, if you believe what the other reviewers said, including those quoted on the book covers, you might be disappointed....more info
  • Beautiful!
    I wish there were more writers like Sarah Dunant -- Her writing is lush and beautiful. Dialogue sounds real, descriptions are vivid, characters act in realistic ways (not as caricatures), endings aren't always predictable or happy. Also, her work is well-researched and educational.

    I was enthralled with this book from the very first page (that's unusual for me) -- I loved it. I also enjoyed "In the Company of the Courtesan". ...more info
  • great read
    I thought this was the best book I have ever read. I have never read a novel by Sarah Dunant before, and was quite surprised at the depth of her writing. She is ingenious in her descriptions of the Rennaissance period, and the life of Alessandra. It was thrilling, deceptive, and told the story perfectly. I have now picked up several more of Sarah Dunant's novels, and I look foreward to reading more of her work. Fabulous book, couldn't put it down!!...more info