I love fiction stories that are historically based. I don’t really care if there are a bit of historical inaccuracies in each novel I read as long I as I get to catch a glimpse or immerse myself into a specific time period. No. Scratch that. I do care about historical inaccuracies but I don’t make a big deal out of it.
Anyway, I found this lovely hardbound at a local second-hand bookshop I frequent. I was drawn immediately to the cover:
The story is told in the first person POV. You take on the role of Bucino, a dwarf/entertainer/manservant of a well known courtesan, Fiammetta. The characters fled to Venice after escaping the sack of Rome in 1527.
The Sack of Rome was a military event carried out by mutinous troupes of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor of Rome. The cause was not enough funds to pay 34,000 troops after defeating the French.
The first thing I usually do when I spot a book is to read the pitch at the back of the book or, in this case, inside the jacket since I got the hardbound edition.
Thus begins In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant’s epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to become a miracle of east-west trade: rich and rancid, pious and profitable, beautiful and squalid.
With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her.
Yet as their fortunes rise, this perfect partnership comes under threat, from the searing passion of a lover who wants more than his allotted nights to the attentions of an admiring Turk in search of human novelties for his sultan’s court. But Fiammetta and Bucino’s greatest challenge comes from a young crippled woman, a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and hearts with devastating consequences for them all.
A story of desire and deception, sin and religion, loyalty and friendship, In the Company of the Courtesan paints a portrait of one of the world’s greatest cities at its most potent moment in history: It is a picture that remains vivid long after the final page. (source)
Beginning in Rome, Bucino and Fiammetta must flee, despite the conniving efforts of the courtesan to make peace with the invading religious factions. She leads the dwarf back to her hometown of Venice, where they find her dead mother’s home. Summoning a healer to bring Fiammetta back to full health after the trying journey by boat, Bucino is prevented by the woman, La Draga’s, disability and apparent psychic powers. Bucino, meanwhile, starts to explore the new city and use it to his advantage. He observes the patterns of courtesans being propositioned in and outside of a major church. He recognizes an old writer acquaintance of Fiammetta’s, Pietro Aretino. The reader later learns that this is an old flame of Fiammetta’s, disliked in Rome for his scandalous political writings.
Wanting to begin their business again, Bucino’s observations help Fiammetta understand how professional courtesans work in Venice. They must move into a more central part of the city. After Fiammetta recovers, she seduces a Turkish man in the street, but does not have time to follow through with the affair. Things start to look up for Fiametta and Bucino, especially as La Draga suggests a subtle treatment to replace Fiammetta’s shorn hair, allowing her to get back to work earlier. To pay for the expensive cosmetics, Bucino goes to sell a ruby – only to find that the real ruby is gone and has been replaced by a clever glass copy. He blames La Draga for this.
Fiammetta takes her first client and steals his purse while he is asleep. She has come up with the idea of trying to work from a gondola, a cheaper idea than moving to the center of the city. However, while trying to sell a book of sonnets that they own, Bucino discovers that it is full of pornographic poems and drawings, instead – written by Aretino. They blackmail Aretino into finding them their first real patron, a soap merchant who helps Fiammetta set up shop.
Some years after this rise to prosperity, tension has arisen between Fiammetta and Bucino. However, when he gets pushed into the canal during a riot, he becomes very ill, and La Draga tends to him as Fiammetta forgives him. Later, in order to thank her and also out of curiosity, Bucino goes to see La Draga at her home, where he has never been. He discovers that she is not actually disabled, nor blind, but has been pretending all the time. Enraged, he finds scientific materials, including a bag of bones, in her home, and throws the bag of bones into the canal before leaving. When the bones wash up on shore later, La Draga is tried for witchcraft and found guilty.
Bucino goes to see her in her cell and they make amends. However, despite all of Fiammetta’s high connections, they can do nothing to save her. The healer is executed for witchcraft. At the end of the book, however, the dwarf and the courtesan are offered an opportunity to make amends, as her young daughter, also called Fiammetta, comes to them in need of rescue. (source)
When I read, I fully immerse myself into the characters’ roles and when I found out I was to be a dwarf in this one, I wasn’t so sure if I would like it. I honestly wanted to be the courtesan. However, as I continued to read, being a witty and talented dwarf wasn’t so bad. I get to follow my mistress wherever she goes and I am a famous novelty. We make a great pair, my mistress and I.
There are things that I discovered as well as I read on. Courtesans were a cut above common prostitutes and were sought out mostly by men who could, obviously, afford them. There are 2 types of courtesans: cortigiana onesta, honest courtesan; and cortigiana di lume, lower class courtesans. Like Japan’s geishas, courtesans were trained early on about their arts. Courtesans have to be articulate, intelligent, possess a skill in the arts, and they have to be charming to hold a conversation well. They were also taught at an early age on how to dress, to move with grace, to use make-up and such. They’re like, to me, a mockery of what a lady of class should be. They also have a degree of freedom. No wonder ladies of the upper echelons of society detest them.
Another thing that surprised me was that courtesans have to be listed in a roster. I was skeptical about that thing actually existing. I just had to search through the internet to find out whether this bit of history is ACTUALLY true and it is. The roster is called Catalogo de tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venetia or Catalog of all Principal and More Honorable Courtesans of Venice. The book was published about 1565. Veronica Franco, famous courtesan and poet, was included in the list.
I also learned about beauty regimens during this era. It wasn’t a surprise that women often died at an early age. Apart from dying from childbirth, women tend to poison themselves through their make-up. Of course, during this time, people weren’t aware of how toxic the components of their make-up are.
Make-up such as whitening powders during this time period contained lead. White skin was considered as a sign of wealth and thus was desirable. Red ochre was used to paint the cheeks a shade of blush. Beauty patches were also used. The belladonna, or deadly nightshade, were used as eye drops for women to dilate their pupils in order to appear seductive. This harms the woman’s eyesight, therefore they always carry parasols to stave off the glare from the sun. That or get out at night. HAHA!
I discovered that, at this period, contact lenses were used. However, it might be that the author could’ve altered this piece of history since, upon further investigation, the first contact lens wasn’t made until centuries later in 1887 (source). Moreover, Murano, as mentioned in the story, was (and still is) famous for their glass works and the birthplace of the eye glasses. These were, at the time, called reading aids.
Since anything you place in your eye irritates it, I think this is an appropriate piece of inaccurate history because La Draga (healer and friend of Fiammetta) is supposedly blind. La Draga uses opaque lenses to give the appearance that she is blind. The consequences to her eyes though are unsightly. Imagine putting a piece of glass in your eye. OUCH! Thank the Lord for technology and soft lenses, eh?
Overall, I was taken through a whirl of emotions: losing a friend, frustrations, humiliation, discrimination, sadness, hope…
And I can feel myself actually living in 1500’s Venice. I could almost smell the stink of the canals, hear the soft lap of the water on my doorstep, the hustle and bustle of the streets. I can feel my joints aching after a long sojourn through the floating city as only a dwarf could feel.
I give this book a 4.5/5
A hot cup of amaretto coffee and lady finger biscuits.
Up Next: The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley