Another tale of Renaissance Italy from Dunant (The Birth of Venus, 2003, etc.), this time replacing the art of painting with the art of seduction.
The story begins in 1527 with the sack of Rome by (irony of ironies) the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. While her neighbors barricade themselves inside their homes, Fiammetta Bianchini tells her cook to prepare a feast, gets dressed up and throws open her doors to the soldiers overturning her city, hoping that charm and hospitality will subdue invaders bent on rape and pillage. This bravura performance sets the stage for a drama that delights and dazzles from first page to last. Smart, witty and fearless, the delightful heroine is joined by an equally engaging cast of supporting characters. First among them is the dwarf Bucino, Fiammetta’s business partner and closest friend. He’s also the novel’s narrator and, when he and his mistress move their operations to Venice, the reader’s escort in the city. Bucino is an ideal guide, keen-eyed and sharp-witted, and the fact that he’s a newcomer to La Serenissima ably serves the larger purposes of this intelligently structured text. The reader learns Venice’s secrets as he does, and Dunant avoids the leaden exposition so common in historical fiction. She lets the life stories of Fiammetta and Bucino unfurl just as organically. Her captivating prose is restrained but eloquent, with flashes of pure poetry. Dunant uses language that feels antique without seeming ridiculous, and she treats the past as a real place rather than an amusement park. She never lets the reader forget that her Venice is a 16th-century city, offering just the right mix of raw sewage and gold-domed cathedrals, but she also makes it convincingly modern: truly cosmopolitan, ruled by commerce and gossip. It’s the perfect setting for an enterprising whore, a resourceful dwarf and a story of love and intrigue.
Rich, rewarding and wonderfully well-crafted entertainment.