The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Another beautiful piece from Sarah Dunant. Like her book In the Company of the Courtesan, this is also set in Renaissance Italy. I have been searching for this after finishing In the Company of the Courtesan. When I finally found it, I bought it straight away even if I had a few monies left inside my wallet. I got the paperback 2004 Random House Publishing edition.

The cover is beautiful–Renaissance art. It is a detail of Saint Barbara from Sistine Madonna by the famous artist Raphael.

However the pitch didn’t draw me into it. I thought it was a slightly boring read…

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.

Plot Summary

A young Florentine girl, Alessandra Cecchi, is drawn to a young painter commissioned to paint the family’s chapel walls. The painter is brought to her home by her father, a rich textile merchant whose business would be negatively affected by the rise of Girolamo Savonarola in Florence over the next few years. The book follows Alessandra’s daily life, and is written in the first person, as a memoir written by Alessandra late in her life. Her passion for painting and learning serve her well, but her family does not approve. Her mother tries her hardest to shape Alessandra into a woman who will be desired by a successful and powerful man. Eventually, after Alessandra has met the painter, but before her feelings for him and his talent have made themselves known to her, her hateful brother Tomaso suggests strong but quiet Cristoforo Langella as a potential husband for her. She marries him shortly afterward.

Meanwhile, her attraction to the painter grows, as does her affection for her husband Langella. She feels torn between Savonarola’s fiery message and her own ideas, her observations of the political turbulence in Florence. She believes she knows what is right, but doesn’t know what she will do about it.

Alessandra realizes that her duty to her family and to her spouse cannot take over her life, and eventually realizes her passion for the painter. Her romance, it seems, is necessary, because she is the only one who can save him. (source)


The story is in the first person POV. We play the role of Alessandra herself. It (the story) is divided into four parts, excluding the prologue. I realize that I should’ve placed the prologue before the plot summary but it was because I wanted to discuss it here first.

The prologue revealed a death scene, the death of Sister Lucrezia, one of Santa Vitella’s many nuns. She was known to have a malignancy on her breast. Her death was announced at matins. Two nuns started postmortem, and one of them pulled the malignancy off from Sister Lucrezia and was astounded that there were no scars left on the body after removing the “tumor”. There was no pus, no discharge, no wound as if the malignancy had left her body unscathed. The two soon found out that this “tumor” was made from a self-applied bladder of pig’s entrails. As if this revelation wasn’t shattering enough, they found a tattoo on the elderly nun’s flesh. It had a body of a snake, silver-green in color, seemingly winding itself around her body, sliding its way over her breast, curling over one dark areola, and plunging down across the stomach. Then as it dipped toward her groin, the shape flattened out for a serpent’s head. However, it wasn’t a head of a reptile but rather a head/face of a human male: head thrown back and eyes closed as if in complete and utter rapture, and the tongue which was long like that of a snake, darting from the mouth downward toward the opening of Sister Lucrezia’s sex.

Intriguing, right? How would a nun have this? And why have this?

When I first read this, I thought I would be reading about Sister Lucrezia but it was about someone else. The woman’s name is Alessandra. I was confused at by this at first but I soon realized that this was about her life prior to being Sister Lucrezia.


Santa Vitella’s Convent, Loro Ciufenna, August 1528

Alessandra fell in love with an artist who was commissioned by her father to paint the family chapel with religious scenes and frescoes. I think the artist here is Michaelangelo.

There were a few boring scenes within the book that I tend to put it down more often. Some parts focused more on her romance with the artist and it frustrated me that they did not “get on with it”. However, I also feel how torn Alessandra was with this dilemma since she is a member of one of the well respected merchant families in her area. Arranged marriages are quite common, so I understand her situation. I would be the same if I were in her shoes.

Overall, the book is nice but I think her next novel was better.

Personal Rating

3.5/5 Too many boring things going on but it is supposed to be like a journal. A testament.

Perfect Pairing

Lavender tea. For those depressing moments in the book.



Good Reads

Up Next: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier




One thought on “The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

  1. Pingback: The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier | The Fat Kat

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