Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dwarf and Ho

In The Company Of The Courtesan by Sarah Dunant is an historical novel that takes place in 16th-century Italy. The novel starts with the sack of Rome by the German and Spanish in 1527, while Fiammetta Bianchini is living there with her household that includes her major-domo, a dwarf named Bucino. At the time, Fiammetta is one of the elite prostitutes in Rome, and the favorite companion of a Medici cardinal. With Bucino, she narrowly escapes death in the sacking of the city and flees to Venice. The novel, which is narrated by Bucino, is the story of their ascendance into the elite circles of Venetian society.

I enjoy historical novels and, at a minimum, I expect them to tell an engaging story while doing a good job of evoking the place and time in which they are set. Though Dunant's story drags a bit in the middle, it grows exciting toward the end, and she does a first-class job of putting the reader in the Venice of the time. Not only that, but she's a fine writer, and she creates an intriguing character in Bucino. Many women writers have a hard time creating convincing male characters. I imagine that men have an equally difficult time creating female characters, though it's harder for me to make that judgement. However, Dunant succeeds with Bucino. He's convincing as a thoroughly male character.

I couldn't help comparing courtesans as portrayed by Dunant with modern-day call girls. In contemporary America, two things are expected of these women. They're to look good, and they're expected to be accomplished in bed. A lot more was demanded of the Venetian courtesans. Not only were they expected to be accomplished in the arts of love, but they had to be stimulating conversationalists and credible entertainers. Fiammetta herself is portrayed as being expert on the lute. It's not that women in medieval Venice occupied a better position in society than they do in today's America, but at its upper levels anyway, Venetian society was more refined than today's buckaroo America.

Dunant has had quite an interesting professional career. She started out in 1974 as an actor and producer on BBC radio. She's been a presenter on a couple of BBC television series. She started out by writing six thrillers. They have since been followed by two historical novels, The Birth of Venus and this one. Quite the busy lady, our Ms. Sarah.


Blogger David Matthews said...

I think I ran across Dunant's name somewhere recently, possibly while browsing at Powell's. Sounds like someone I should check out.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Stan Thompson said...

Chuck, You kindly offered to share a copy of "A Pterodactyl in the Wilderness" for my brother-in-laws funeral leaflet. I think my wife failed to mention that the printer's deadline is this afternoon (12/14/06). Any hope?

Stan Thompson


1:53 PM  

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