An independent woman in the Italian Renaissance?!?!? Oh my.
I recently took a trip to Italy. (Don't worry, I'll include a small photo gallery below.) In the spirit of that vacation, I embarked on some "themed reading," and for this I looked no further than a book I had read while in college and was excited to read again: THE BIRTH OF VENUS by Sarah Dunant.
The first time I read this book, it was actually assigned reading for a class on Italian Art and Architecture, which makes it seem as if this may be closer to a textbook than a novel. Don't worry, it's not. It was chosen because it gives an incredibly flavorful and accurate (so far as we can surmise) depiction of the society that was affluent Renaissance Florence.
Alessandra Cecchi is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant and an exceptional woman who once associated with the court of the Medici family. Alessandra herself is an extraordinary young lady: intelligent, inquisitive and with a real talent for drawing. Which in 1492 means she is just unusual. Each of her siblings are unencumbered with independent thought and seemingly easily fit into the roles they are meant to play, but Alessandra is constantly pushing against the societal cage that has been constructed around her. Her comfort comes through her faith and art; so, when her father brings a painter from the north to complete their family chapel, Alessandra is immediately drawn to all that he represents.
The Early Renaissance in Florence is a fascinating time: the papacy has become considerably less pious, though the church is still the center of both the family and state. This is fortunate for art and culture because as the heads of the church become entrenched in material wealth, they also become major patrons of creating massive and lasting artistic impressions with a willingness to turn a blind eye when enough cash lands in their pockets. It's a lively time of decadence with a healthy amount of corruption and, while this is never good for the longevity of a particular community, it is fantastic for the setting of a novel.
Alessandra spends this entire book trying to find her independence, and in a time when this was all but impossible for women, it is a feat to behold. When you add to the equation that she is only fifteen years old, she puts my past teenage self to shame. And...she isn't the only great female character in this book! Alessandra's mother is her rock. She is much more quiet, but is really the heart and soul of their family and her daughter's biggest champion. As so often happens with a strong matriarch in patriarchal times, she is silently pulling the puppet strings of their lives. Also to be noted is Alessandra's maid, Erila, who is truly a force to be reckoned with. Being of a lower societal class, she has the freedom to move freely among the streets of Florence. Where her education of books is lacking, her knowledge in the ways of the world dominates and she continually helps Alessandra skirt the rules of her gender and class. It's this trio of incredibly interesting and well-developed characters that drive this book forward.
If you couldn't tell from the writing in this post (and others)...I'm a bit of an art nerd. And a lover of history. Or, as some may point out: someone who holds a minor in Art History. And while this definitely adds to my appreciation of this book, it is not necessary to know the works they are referencing to be thoroughly drawn in by these characters and this story. The history is almost snuck in - you may not even realize how much you are learning. At the end of the day, this is an exciting and intriguing book that will leave you constantly eager to find out what will happen next.
Oh! Pictures of Florence!