Alessandra is not quite fifteen when her prosperous merchant father brings a young painter back with him from Holland to adorn the walls of the new family chapel. She is fascinated by his talents and envious of his abilities and opportunities to paint to the glory of God. Soon her love of art and her lively independence are luring her into closer involvement with all sorts of taboo areas of life. On excursions into the streets of night-time Florence she observes a terrible evil stalking the city and witnesses the rise of the fiery young priest, Savanarola, who has set out to rid the city of vice, richness, even art itself. Alessandra must make crucial decisions about the shape of her adult life, as Florence itself must choose between the old ways of the luxury-loving Medicis and the asceticism of Savanorola. And through it all, there is the painter, whose love will change everything.
The Birth of Venus is all the more fascinating a historical novel for the author's inability to make up her mind what it is about. Is it a novel about the limited choices available to a woman with talent in Renaissance Florence--marriage or the convent? Or is it a novel about the choices you make to survive in a totalitarian society? As Savonarola takes Florence closer and closer to being an ascetic theocracy, Alessandra, her gay brother and his lover whom she has married for mutual protection find themselves in more and more peril. It could also be a detective story--Allesandra is in love with a painter whose religious mania and fascination with the body makes him a plausible suspect for a series of killings and dismemberments. Some historical novels wear their research too heavily--Dunant's is light, fluent and pacy, but her fascination with the possibilities revealed by research leaves her failing to make choices. The Birth of Venus is a highly intelligent novel kept from incoherence mostly by the intensely imagined Alessandra, through whose eyes we see the tragic end of a key moment in human culture and whose lively sensibility constantly sparks ideas about art an #NAME? 'Dunant throws out ideas about sex, art and the divine with Renaissance-style sprezzatura' The INDEPENDENT 'No one should visit Tuscany this summer without this book. It is richly textured, and driven by a thrillerish fever' The TIMES 'Dunant makes the art and philosophy of the period look new and dangerous again'