In the Company of the Courtesan
by Sarah Dunant
Fiammetta Bianchini, a fiery courtesan renowned for her beauty, is forced to flee her home during the 1527 Sack of Rome. She and her dwarf/pimp, Bucino, wander the Italian countryside for weeks before arriving in Venice, where Fiammetta grew up. It is here in the city of canals that the pair decides to start their lives over and make Fiammetta as wealthy and popular as she was in Rome. With the aid of the mysterious La Draga, a blind healer reputed to have prophetic powers, Bucino and Fiammetta set up shop. Despite setbacks and struggles, Fiammetta is soon in demand, even posing for the painter Titian for the painting that has since become known as The Venus of Urbino.
This is one of those novels that grabs you by the hand and leads you through a city with no discrimination between the beautiful and the hideous. Whether walking through a luxurious palace belonging to an aristocrat or wandering the dirty, dark streets of an impoverished area of town, Venice is rendered so convincingly that the reader can almost smell the stench of the canals and feel the rich texture of Fiammetta’s velvet gown. It really transports you back to the 16th century.
The details aren’t limited to just sights and sounds. I really liked reading the detailed ingredients of La Draga’s healing poultices, or the customs and habits of courtesans like Fiammetta. But I thought the story especially interesting because it comes from such an unusual source. As a dwarf, there are challenges Bucino faces each day that no other narrator would share. His diminutive size might make him a subject for ridicule, but it can also be his best disguise, since many people seem to assume that an inferior body means Bucino has an inferior mind as well. He’s a sarcastic narrator, rather bitter, but fun, too. If you’ve never read one of Sarah Dunant’s novels, In the Company of the Courtesan is a great one to start with.
4 out of 5 stars
The Venus of Urbino by Titian