"In the Company of the Courtesan"
(Reviewed by Terez Rose JUN 9, 2007)
“My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole into the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.”
Thus is the reader catapulted into Sarah Dunant’s second historical novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, on the heels of her bestselling The Birth of Venus. Setting a pace that never subsides, her latest story, told by Bucino, dwarf and faithful servant to Roman courtesan Fiammetta, chronicles trials endured following the brutal 1527 sack of Rome. The duo flee the destroyed city with little more than their lives and several hastily swallowed jewels, making their way to Fiammetta’s native Venice. Here they will recover, then attempt to reclaim their livelihood and fortunes.
Venice is a thriving port city, half-island, half-water, rich from East-West trade. With its murky waterways, stench, dazzling architecture and public displays of both opulence and piety, the city harbors its own secrets and curious characters. This includes La Draga, a mysterious crippled healer and childhood friend of Fiammetta’s who is destined to play a pivotal role in the lives of both Fiammetta and Bucino. While La Draga tends to Fiammetta’s wounded body and spirit, it is up to Bucino to set up shop. The discovery of an illicit illustrated book within their possession— including incriminating verses penned by one-time adversary Pietro Aretino—results in Aretino’s agreement to help Fiammetta reestablish herself in Venetian courtesan society, an endeavor at which she ultimately succeeds.
The author’s decision to use Bucino, and not Fiammetta, to tell the story was a judicious one. Fiammetta is the star of the show, Bucino simply the manager, the canny observer. His voice is instantly appealing—down to earth, wise and entertaining. He has had a lifetime to adapt to his deformity and his myriad challenges have produced in him a philosophical acceptance of human nature and a wry sense of humor to match.
Dunant, author of nine novels, employs a detailed, sensual style of writing that is at once literary, commercial and historical. Reading her writing is a multi-sensory experience, much like dining at a fine restaurant. And while a courtesan is the ultimate sensualist—a woman trained from birth to please a man—Dunant wisely steers away from overplaying this angle. There are no sex scenes to speak of. The story doesn’t need them. Instead, the allusion to them is as compelling and gracefully erotic as a courtesan herself.
Dunant refrains from overt judgment, both of 16th century Venetian society and its covert sex trade. She depicts the uneasy tango of piety and wealth the city’s leaders struggle with, but allows the reader to make their own judgments. Where she does show her bias is in her defense of societal outcasts—dwarves, poets, cripples, courtesans—for which she has taken care to imbue these characters with strong, resilient spirits. There are no victims in Dunant’s story, simply people, flawed as we all are, struggling to rise to the challenges life sets before them. Several characters, it is interesting to note—Pietro Aretino, La Draga (also called Elena Cruischi), and Aretino’s friend Tiziano Vecellio (better known as Titian), whose famous painting of a recumbent golden-haired courtesan graces the novel’s front cover—are real-life figures from that era.
In its second half, the novel hits a plateau with its less dire but still difficult issues. Just as a young adult’s “what is to become of me?” becomes the somber “what became of me?” introspection of middle age, the story matures to expose troubling personal foibles. It is here that Bucino sheds some of his bravura and exposes his vulnerabilities, as does Fiammetta when an infatuation for a young client risks destroying her reputation and enterprise. Bucino muses over this conundrum in the following:
“You would be surprised how many courtesans at some point fall in love with the idea of falling in love, to experience the thrill and freshness that they must pretend so many times with other men. It seems to me that the more successful they are, the greater the danger: for, once life is comfortable, there is nothing to fear, nothing to fight for. Which means in turn that there is nothing to look forward to. Which, in a strange way, can make one think more keenly of death and yearn for some way of standing out against it, some hunger for an extravagance of feeling bigger even than death itself.”
Bucino’s own search for answers lead him to discover more than he’d anticipated, ratcheting the story’s stakes, propelling the reader to its wrenching but inevitable, bittersweet conclusion. I finished the story in somewhat of a daze, reeling from its intensity, deeply affected by the characters and their fates—the trademark of a story well told. In the Company of the Courtesan not only gave me an opportunity to temporarily escape my own world, but also, paradoxically, cast illumination on it, offering a reflection of society half a millennium earlier. With its public virtue and private vice, loves, loyalties and betrayals, I’m reminded that, in the end, things haven’t changed all that much. A highly recommended read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 157 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from In the Company of the Courtesan at RandomHouse
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Birth of Venus (2003)
- In the Company of the Courtesan (2006)
- Sacred Hearts (2009)
- Blood and Beauty: The Borgias (July 2013)
Hannah Wolf Crime Novels:
With Peter Busby, writing as Peter Dunant:
- Exterminating Angels (1983)
- Intensive Care (1986)
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- Official website for Sarah Dunant
- British Council page on Sarah Dunant
- Chapter Excerpt and Reader's Guide for The Birth of Venus
- The New York Times review of The Birth of Venus
- Reader's Guide for In the Company of the Courtesan
- MostlyFiction.com review of Sacred Hearts
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About the Author:
Sarah Dunant was born in 1950. She read history at Newnham College, Cambridge and has worked in theatre, radio and television. Fatlands was the 1993 winner of a Crime Writers' Association Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction.S he is a patron of the Orange Prize for Fiction and reviews for various newspapers and magazines including The Times and The Observer, and is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 3's Night Waves. Now a full-time writer, she is adapting her novels Transgressions and Mapping the Edge for the screen.
She lives in London, England