"The Birth of Venus" is Sarah Dunant's alluring novel about a rebellious and strong-willed girl who eventually finds what she has been seeking - the freedom to paint - in an unlikely place.
This lovely portrait of 15th-century Florence combines aspects of art, passion, love, God and power. Its narrator is that young girl, Alessandra Cecchi, who is now Sister Lucrezia, an elderly nun.
Her story begins when she is 14 and has discovered her desire to create art. It is a period in Florence when "men live, women wait," a time of tumultuous change in the church and state.
The church was a powerful force in the 1490s. The rich and powerful Lorenzo de Medici, who sought to transform Florence into the New Athens, had died. The monk Savonarola had assumed power and was leading the people of Florence away from luxury, art and power and "had set out to bring her to God" to form the New Jerusalem.
Young Alessandra displays a great philosophical mind and a keen eye for art. One day, her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter to their palazzo to paint the chapel. That is when her love for art meets what is to become her lifelong love for this artist.
But Alessandra is soon married off to a much-older man who shares her feelings about art and philosophy but is attracted to young men. When he gives Alessandra tools for painting in place of his love, she says: "If we could not have love, my husband and I, then at least I could have alchemy."
Alessandra and the young painter do find each other again, which is the reason she has written her life's story. When Alessandra and the painter last meet, the reader feels the warmth of her passion:
"We stood watching each other. There was so much to say. But I was finding it hard to breathe. It was as if someone had lit a fire in the room and it was taking up all the air between us,"
Dunant compels readers with her rich vision of Renaissance Florence. Alessandra's account leads us through the city as she describes its way of life, allowing readers to appreciate its art, slip into its luxurious garments, walk its streets, live in its homes and pray in its churches.
But what enchants most is catching the fever of Alessandra's passion to experience life for all it's worth.
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