Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In the Company of the Courtesan

In the Company of the Courtesan
Written by: Sarah Dunant
Paperback: 385 pages
Publisher: Random House
Language: English
January 2006, $13.99
Genre: Fiction/Historical

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 in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.

Thus begins In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant’s epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to become a miracle of east-west trade: rich and rancid, pious and profitable, beautiful and squalid.

With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her.

Yet as their fortunes rise, this perfect partnership comes under threat, from the searing passion of a lover who wants more than his allotted nights to the attentions of an admiring Turk in search of human novelties for his sultan’s court. But Fiammetta and Bucino’s greatest challenge comes from a young crippled woman, a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and hearts with devastating consequences for them all.

A story of desire and deception, sin and religion, loyalty and friendship, In the Company of the Courtesan paints a portrait of one of the world’s greatest cities at its most potent moment in history: It is a picture that remains vivid long after the final page.


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For a very long time I have not only been fascinated with Venice but with courtesans. There is something undeniably alluring and fascinating about courtesans. The hetaerae of ancient Greece were some of the only educated women of their time and even allowed to take part in the symposia. They were independent and influential women, accomplished in the arts and yes were well skilled in other areas as well, but they were liberated far more than the average woman. But they weren’t common prostitutes nor were they simply mistresses. They were the female courtiers at court, paramour to the royals, the elite and the wealthy, and often had a higher status than wives. She used her intelligence, her wit, her body, and her talents to further her career. And they were usually successful ones.

But love was never part of the deal for the moment a courtesan fell in love with one of her patrons, she was no longer a courtesan. For a die hard romantic like myself that seems such a lonely life, despite the freedom and liberties a courtesan had. While many courtesans lived well after their beauty faded due to their wit and intelligence, others gambled away their money and jewels. As I said courtesans are fascinating so I relish anything I can get.

I had heard about Dunant’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and while I bought that as well it has stayed in my TBR pile, though possibly not for much longer. It was high time I picked it up and I am glad that I did.

The novel begins as Bucino, a dwarf and companion to one of Rome’s greatest courtesans, recounts the sacking of Rome. His mistress and their household do not flee, but use their wits to buy them some time. But eventually it all falls part and they barely escape with their lives and a handful of valuables to the glorious Venice to start again. But Fiammetta is not the beauty she once was (she did not escape Rome before being beaten and her head cruelly shaven leaving scars) and they are unknowns in the courtesan world of Venice. Their only hope comes in the form of the few jewels they escaped with and an intriguing blind woman named La Draga who may or not be a witch.

Bucino weaves a tale that is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. While sex plays a big part in the novel, we never get any in-depth descriptions of Fiammetta’s profession and I like that; while the life of a courtesan is part of the novel, it is not the central theme, but more like the setting. And Venice…oh it is vivid and lovely and is as much a character as Bucino, Fiammetta or La Draga.

Things I loved: One of my favorite films is called Dangerous Beauty which is a fictionalized account of the Venice courtesan and poetess Veronica Franco. Of course in the end Dangerous Beauty is a love story and in its own way I suppose “…Courtesan” is a love story as well. A love for Venice, Buchino’s love for the women in his life, and more.

* I have never read anything by Dunant, but she captivated me with her story. It seemed real and vibrant as if Fiammetta really was Titian’s courtesan in the picture, and not just her own creations. I wish she did exist and I would love to see Fiametta’s story brought to the big screen.

* As I said I love the characters. Buchino is a delight and extremely sympathetic. I liked seeing Venice and Fiammetta from his point of view. He is loyal and witty, a fine character. Fiammetta on the other hand is not as sympathetic, not because of her profession but her vanity though I suppose it is partly due to her beauty that she was so sought after. However, despite her dips into the shallow end of things she endured a lot with the fall of Rome and even in Venice. We see her grow up from the flighty, sometimes you want to smack her, young woman into something so much more by the end. She knows love, she knows loss and you cannot help but love her as she matures.

* One of my favorite characters was La Draga though. She is such an enigmatic woman and her relationship with Buccino was one that made me laugh and cry. Without giving anything away, the last fifth of the book is largely La Draga’s story and I loved every bit of it.

Things I didn't love so much: Nothing really sticks out. I am sure there is something, but I just cannot seem to think of it.

Buy or Borrow: A wonderful, sensual, captivating tale it is worth the read. Buy or at least please pick up from the library and give it a whirl.

Part of: Stand Alone

Also Recommended: The Birth of Venus and Sacred Hearts also by Dunant, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and The Book of the Courtesans by Susan Griffin.

4 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks

Have your own review? Let me know and I will post it.

1 comment:

Ajaya said...

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cheers..be in touch...ajay