I recently started picking up books from my personal library in a quest to actually read novels that I have bought over the years. The Birth of Venus was originally published about eight years ago and my personal copy has been sitting on my shelf for half that time. Yet, I seem to have a knack for picking up books that relate to my current musings and ongoing conversations. My coworker and I have been discussing religion in our down time at work, just when I began reading this book about faith in its many guises.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is a thought-provoking look at one woman’s role in the upper echelons of Renaissance Florence. Alessandra Cecchi, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, has unconventional and what would be considered sacrilegious ideas about what she wants for her life. She ends up doing her female duty to her family by marrying a well-to-do and wealthy man named Christoforo. Before she leaves her family’s home though, she begins a friendship and fascination with the painter hired by her father to decorate the family chapel.
The relationships with these two men are the emotional thread of the book, set amid the terrifying reign of the puritanical Savonarola, who wrapped up destruction of priceless works of art and volumes of literature, Inquisition tactics forcing confessions of hedonism, and outright murder of “sinners”, in asceticism, piety, and righteousness. This, all at the time that the Borgias controled the papacy in Rome.
This political backdrop is as much a part of Alessandra as her romantic relationships are. At the most basic level, Alessandra wants to be a part of the action, watching riots and parades of faithful in the streets, attending sermons of the extremist monk, and discussing the political climate with her family and husband. Yet, the veritable witch hunt for sinners also threatens to ruin her brother, husband, and lover. Alessandra struggles throughout the book with her faith, questioning the brutal tactics of Savonarola, warring with disgust at her husband’s secret relationship with her brother and a growing affection for him, and the fostering of her quest to create beauty through art.
It is the latter that interested me so much from the beginning, with my religious philosophizing happening at work and obsession with art. Alessandra pursues her artistic talents at a time when art was dominated by men. She skulks off to hold clandestine meetings with the chapel painter who she is both drawn to sexually and spiritually, seeking advice on her drawings. Her lover, known only as “the painter,” has a crisis of faith half way through the book after listening to the rousing sermons of Savonarola that condemned art, adornment, and visual opulence as brash affronts to God, leaving him physically and emotionally unable to paint.
Yet, it is through art that painters and patrons showed their devotion at that time in history and in this story, the device through which Alessandra bonds with her husband, surmounting her initial harsh opinion of him. It is the source of her initial obsession with the painter and her desire to heal his spirit so that he can paint again that pushes her into her only real experience of romantic love. It is a physical mark on her body that is discovered at her death as a symbol of the creation of beauty and the embodiment of desire and the joining of souls, however sacrilegious it may appear. In the end, art is the legacy of devotion Alessandra leaves in her own chapel fresco.
Faith through art is not a new concept, but it is what stood out to me most in Dunant’s book. There are different kinds of faith: faith in God, in love, in oneself, and faith that we are doing the right things in life. Dunant’s book poetically explores this array of faith’s guises in a page-turning book cloaked in the exciting and brutal period of the Florentine Renaissance.
My only gripe with this book was that the painter’s identity was never revealed. While Medicis, Savonarola, Da Vinci and other historical figures were mentioned, Dunant teased readers with the mysterious Northern painter who ends up working in Rome. However, rather than trying to pinpoint anyone in particular, I think Dunant embraced ambiguity purposefully. The painter could be any number of Renaissance artists and is probably a composite of painters of that time. He is an embodiment of art itself, and while he has human characteristics and flaws, I think he partially serves as a symbol of Alessandra’s courtship with art, a vehicle for her own self-discovery, and an entity that she can live vicariously through.
The Birth of Venus truly has everything, from soap opera intrigues, to a little murder mystery, to a vivid tapestry of Renaissance life. Maybe you’ll find something that speaks to you too.