Public versus private in Renaissance Florence: Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus


Sarah Dunant, the Birth of Venus (2003)

Sarah Dunant, the Birth of Venus (2003)

Sarah Dunant’s first series of Renaissance novels (written between 2003- 2009)  resulted in a triptych of writings on the experiences of Renaissance women, from a Venetian Courtesan (In the Company of the Courtesan–  see my blog entry here ) to those of an unwilling novice in a Ferrarese convent (Sacred Hearts), with Birth of Venus looking at a young wife in Savonarolan Florence. All three books share the theme of  women in the Renaissance as a leitmotif, even responding to Joan Kelly-Gadol’s question of whether women did in fact have a Renaissance.

In Dunant’s triptych of novels, the wife, the courtesan and the nun are all in various ways defined both by their relationships to and with the men shaping their lives, but another common theme is the spaces they have (or rather lack)  to express themselves. Alessandra, the wife, rattles around in an old, tattered house expressive of her husband’s intellectual life and fitting him and his refined intellectual interests (Plato, Dante etc.) but barely accommodating a young girl desperately trying to find her own voice through painting; the creation of a painter’s workshop for Alessandra in the end gives her a ‘room of her own’ and allows her finally to express and assert herself. It is in the workshop that she sets new boundaries, and it is to a painter’s workshop she finally retires at the conclusion of the events narrated in Birth of Venus, events that are  convulsing Florence with the Fall of Savonarola in 1498.  Fiammetta, the courtesan of Dunat’s second novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, moves from house to house, first in Rome and then in Venice, only superficially putting down shallow roots through furnishing spaces with gifts she has received from her patrons; she expresses herself physically, and arguably only speaks truthfully when she falls in love. FIammetta above all else craves stability and a family of her own, to create a legacy, but while her barrenness is an asset for her profession, it denies her the permanence of a maternal relationship she so desperately seeks.  Finally Serafina, the nun at the centre of the events unfolding in Sacred Hearts, has to be physically locked into her  convent cell to contain her, yet her wonderful singing voice cannot be silenced and it’s her voice that states her presence and permeates the membrane of the nuns’ clausura.  Each of Dunant’s novels therefore stands on its own, but reading them as loosely connected variations on a theme makes them, for me, an even more rewarding read. Please do bear in mind though that I come at these novels as a Renaissance art historian with research and teaching interests in gender, and that this semester in particular, I have taught an option for Finalists on Women in Italian Renaissance Art, so this is right up my street… For reviews on the book on its first publication in 2003, have a look at the selection below:

Sarah A Smith, 22 March 2003, The Guardian

Valerie Merlin, 7 March 2004, New York Times

Justine Ettler, 16 March 2003, The Observer 

(now, just as an aside- have you noticed how this novel about women has been exclusively reviewed by women? Just saying).

Getting back to Dunant’s writing, the backdrop to Birth of Venus  is a sumptuous evocation of Florence in the 1490s, at a major turning point for its social, political and artistic fortunes, just when Medicean rule disintegrates and the resulting power vacuum is filled by the aggressive apostolic reforms of Fra Gerolamo Savonarola. Florence’s artists leave for the vibrancy and exuberance of Alexander VI’s (Rodrigo Borgia’s) Rome, incidentally the setting of Dunant’s latest foray into writing on Renaissance Italy, in her Blood and Beauty duology. Meet Alessandra Cecchi, young and feisty teenager, daughter of a cloth merchant and a  fiercely intelligent mother, at the cusp of adulthood yet constrained and contained within her parents’ palace. Alessandra is hemmed in at home, surrounded by walls and women, bullied by two older brothers, and dreaming of freedom, without actually quite knowing what she means. She has never been outside the structures and frameworks of her parental home, and lives both an immensely private life, yet also one where she publicly performs an ideal of womanhood (and here, there is no better source than Francesco Barbaro’s contemporary treatise, On Wifely Duties). For Alessandra, what she dreams of are images derived from art she has either seen in churches (wonderful references here to Ghirlandaio’s work in Santa Maria Novella) or in books and on marriage furniture, such as cassoni and spalliere. In her mind, the images ARE real, and illustrate an ideal of love and life she lacks at home. Nothing in Alessandra’s world has been real and experienced first hand until she herself leaves her parents’ house in a hastily arranged marriage to a much older husband who in start contrast to his young bride has seen so much, he has become weary of more impressions and has stopped looking. So, in the novel, private and public worlds collide, with the upheavals in Alessandra’s own life repeated in the public convulsion of a Florence that slides from its cultural heyday under Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’Medici into the sobering nightmare of Savonarola’s Republic of Christ.

Here, Dunant’s skill as a story teller shows in the way the narrative about Alessandra is mapped on to the account of the rise and fall of Savonarola’s Republic, but while the two story lines may run in parallel, they rise and descend in stark opposition to each other. The rise of Savonarola hems in Alessandra further than she has ever been restrained before, and not only is she confined to the privacy of the home, she is also denied her main comfort of art. Alessandra loves the comforting, reassuring familiarity of Domenico Ghirlandaio and a young Sandro Botticelli; the ‘Bonfire of Vanities’ and the Savonarolan emphasis on austerity turns art and its sentiments hostile. In particular, religious art no longer speaks of salvation and community but preaches terror, fear, destruction even, and leads to madness. Literally, in the case of a young Flemish painter employed by Alessandra’s family to paint a family chapel. Her relationship with the painter – we never learn his name- forms the emotional core of the story, and for Alessandra, her salvation. It is she though who rescues the painter from debilitating despair, through love, proper love, freely given, and unconditionally reciprocated. As Alessandra learns to love, Florence burns, and finally purges itself of its fiery Dominican friar, and out of the ashes rises a new beginning for Alessandra. She finds her voice- through painiting- in a convent, a republic of women.

There is lots of material here to think about: agency of women, the role of women as story tellers, the lost voices of Renaissance women, and above all else, here is a book that puts colour, pigments, painting at its very heart. Images spring from every page of this book, and for Dunant, art isn’t used as a means to inject some background interest to her story, Renaissance art is at the very heart of it. In this, she proves herself to be Baxandallian to her very core, because as Baxandall so empathically asserted:

a {fifteenth-century} painting is the deposit of a social relationship.

Of Dunant’s three Renaissance Women triptych books, I confess to loving this one, the first one, most of all.





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