The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant

Bonfire of the vanities

By Clare Colvin
Saturday 15 March 2003 01:00

Saarh Dunany has dived into a rich seam of Tuscan history with her latest novel. The names of the era evoke a heady brew made up of Savonarola's hellfire, Lorenzo il Magnifico's splendour, Botticelli's sublime art. Florence at the end of the 15th century was a city in turmoil, as the power of the Medici was usurped by a mad monk.

Dunant, best known as a thriller writer, begins with a mysterious death. An elderly nun, assumed to have died from cancer, is laid out for the funeral. The sisters discover that her skin is engraved with a lavish tattoo of a serpent with a man's head, undulating from shoulder to groin. The origin of the tattoo, and the cause of death, are only explained in the final pages. In the meantime, there are other deaths, as we go back to the nun's early years as the daughter of a rich Florentine family in the last days of Lorenzo de' Medici.

Alessandra is a tall, awkward girl, aware she does not fulfil a conventional idea of femininity, and with a penchant for reading Plato. She itches to be an artist but, for a woman, this is unacceptable. When her father, an ambitious cloth merchant, brings a painter to decorate the family chapel, she determines to learn about art.

The painter – we never learn his name – has his own problems. Brought up by monks under the grey skies of northern Europe, he is confused by the colourful exuberance of Italy, frightened of women, and racked by religious guilt. Meanwhile, outside the cloistered palazzo, storms of political change overwhelm Florence as Lorenzo's heir Pietro fails to stop the French invasion, and Savonarola rails from the pulpit at the citizens' corruption. For good measure, a maniac is stalking the city at night, murdering and sexually mutilating his victims.

There are echoes of the Taliban in the takeover by Savonarola's followers. Gangs of vigilantes harass women on the streets, so that the tap of prostitutes' heels is replaced by the click of rosary beads. The luxury-loving citizens begin to impose a voluntary curfew of the mind, dress dully, and voluntarily offer up household treasures to be destroyed on the Bonfire of the Vanities. It's a lesson in how easily people succumb to self-righteous militancy.

Dunant weaves the strands of history with a love story about both love of a man, and of art. She has the thriller writer's skill of leaving clues and reveals, at the right moment, secrets that throw new light on the protagonists.

As far as talent is concerned, there is an irony in the luck of the draw. The painter reaches Rome to find himself overshadowed by another new arrival from Florence – Michelangelo. Alessandra, who has devoted her life to painting, has to admit in a lyrical epilogue that her art had been only mediocre, a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others. Yet such, she reflects, was the sound of the chorus that to have been part of it was enough.

Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Hutchinson in June

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