The Birth of Venus
By Sarah Dunant
LITTLE, BROWN pounds 12.99
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The novel opens in late 1528, with the agonising death of the pious nun, Sister Lucrezia, in her convent. Lucrezia was rumoured to have had a racy life before devoting what was left of it to God; but nothing prepares the nuns for the condition of her dead body. Not only was the tumour she died of apparently a fake, but undulating down her belly is the mark of Satan: a painted snake whose head and flickering tongue is poised as if to dive between her legs.
Abruptly, we scroll back to the 1490s to meet 14-year-old Alessandra, a wealthy Florentine merchant's daughter. She can speak fluent Latin, reads Greek, and keeps up with all the latest philosophical debates. Life in their palazzo is lively: she quarrels with her two obstreperous older brothers, looks down on her dozy, cowlike big sister, and continually argues with her mother. Father is too busy supplying Florence with the costly fabrics and fashions it craves to make an impact.
It's clear that Alessandra must be found a husband - when the French army invades, as it is constantly threatening to do, the city won't be safe for single women. The trouble is, her learning and wit are putting off potential suitors. Set against family concerns are the perils and pleasures of renaissance Florence. New paintings are being unveiled which question the relationship between man and God; after the death of Lorenzo, the people are coming to terms with post- Medici rule; a monk called Savonarola is calling for a return to virtue. And, in the age-old battle of the flesh versus the spirit, someone is ripping open the town's prostitutes and homosexuals. …