Ever since I read Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” I’ve been a sucker for any novel that promises an incursion into fifteen century Florence. While “The Birth of Venus” has not moved me as much, it’s still a good read. Well-researched and well-written, “The Birth of Venus” tells the story of a woman who had the talent, but unfortunately not the right genitals to become a Renaissance artist. The background of the Savonarola years and the tragedy it caused to the artistic world is wonderfully recreated. The character of Alessandra is poignant, but most of the others are bound to be forgettable.
Even though the core of the book is historical, Dunant looks at gender issues, and at times the reader can feel the utmost revolt at the way women were expected to behave in De Medici’s times. Alessandra goes nowhere without a chaperone, and she doesn’t spend a day in her life as a free woman. Going from her father’s home straight to her husband’s villa, and then straight into a convent, Alessandra has less freedom than her slave. Her passion for art follows everywhere, but it gets her nowhere, only to mediocrity. Alessandra’s final act is perhaps the only decision she could truly make for herself.