The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant. Random House. 416 pages. $21.95.
From its first arresting sentence, this rich historical novel set in Renaissance Italy compels us to witness preparations for burial of an aged nun, dead after an agonizing illness her convent understands as breast cancer, for which the reclusive Sister Lucrezia has refused all treatment.
The description is not for the squeamish. As the convent's nursing sister and her assistant cut away Sister Lucrezia's habit and the encrusted cotton shift beneath, releasing an appalling stench in the heat of Tuscan summer, they and the reader are assaulted by shocking sights that simultaneously reveal the secret of Sister Lucrezia's terminal course, and suggest other, more disturbing enigmas utterly at variance with rules governing the life of a cloistered nun.
We are thus hooked, within a few seductively well-written pages, by Sarah Dunant, a skilled storyteller who spins out her almost operatic tale by means of a memoir written by Sister Lucrezia and bequeathed to a faithful servant.
Before withdrawing to the contemplative order, Sister Lucrezia was Alessandra Cecchi, daughter of a wealthy Florentine merchant, one of the self-made men who flourished under the Medici, bringing to Florence sumptuous textiles and exotic luxuries later to be denounced and publicly burned under the malign influence of the fanatic monk Savonarola.
From childhood, Alessandra was made aware that her life choices were severely limited: Well-born girls in Renaissance Florence were destined for arranged dynastic marriages, able only by exceptional luck or guile to alter their fates. We come to admire Alessandra's intelligence and courage, impressive mastery of the new learning, and passion for the intellectual and artistic ferment of Florence.
She reveals too her perforce concealed ambition to become a painter, a creator in her own right. Alessandra's yearning, nourished by acute observation of masterpieces being created around her, is the more poignant because she falls in love with a young Flemish artist brought into the Cecchi household to paint the family chapel.
Their tortuous forbidden relationship develops in counterpoint to the inevitable match arranged for Alessandra with a much older, worldly nobleman who in his turn harbors a dangerous secret, revealed only on their traumatic wedding night.
Vividly described armed conflict within and outside Florence, and the vast terror unleashed from the pulpit by Savonarola, ultimately imperil even the well-established and influential Cecchi family. At this point the novel takes on the taut pace of a thriller, in which unreasoning fear, whether of random violence, plague or hellfire, becomes as palpable as the desperation of those Florentines, even among the aristocracy, hunted down for their religious or sexual deviance.
Based on historical research that informs without being intrusive, accompanied moreover by a serious bibliography, this novel satisfies on many levels. It may inspire you to read Renaissance history, or haunt you the next time you look at a Florentine painting, and wonder what the artist was feeling as he paused before the empty canvas, then turned to dip his brush.
A.J. Sherman, formerly an investment banker in New York and London, is a foundation executive and philanthropic consultant. A writer and an associate fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, he lives in Vermont. His latest book is Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948.