My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor's army blew a hole in the wall of God's eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment. Thus begins In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant's epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to become a miracle of east-west trade: rich and rancid, pious and profitable, beautiful and squalid. With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her. Yet as their fortunes rise, this perfect partnership comes under threat, from the searing passion of a lover who wants more than his allotted nights to the attentions of an admiring Turk in search of human novelties for his sultan's court.
Renaissance Italy enchants in Dunant's delicious second historical (after The Birth of Venus), as a wily dwarf Bucino Teodoldo recounts fantastic escapades with his mistress, celebrated courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini. Escaping the 1527 sacking of Rome with just the clothes on their backs (and a few swallowed jewels in their bellies), Fiammetta and Bucino seek refuge in Venice. Starved, stinking, her beauty destroyed, Fiammetta despairs-but through cunning, will, Bucino's indefatigable loyalty and the magic of a mysterious blind healer called La Draga, she eventually recovers. Aided by a former adversary, who now needs her as much as she needs him, Fiammetta finds a wealthy patron to establish her in her familiar glory. Through Bucino's sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued narration, Dunant crafts a vivid vision of Venetian life: the weave of politics and religion; the layers of class; the rituals, intrigue, superstitions and betrayals. Dunant's characters-the steely courtesan whose glimpse of true love nearly brings her to ruin; the shrewd and passionate dwarf who turns his abnormalities into triumph; and the healer whose mysterious powers and secrets leave an indelible mark on the duo-are irresistible throughout their shifting fortunes. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 11, 2006
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Excerpt from In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman emperor's army blew a hole in the wall of God's eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.
Italy was a living chessboard for the ambitions of half of Europe in those days. The threat of war was as regular as the harvest, alliances made in winter were broken by spring, and there were places where women bore another child by a different invading father every other year. In the great and glorious city of Rome, we had grown soft living under God' s protection, but such was the instability of the times that even the holiest of fathers made unholy alliances, and a pope with Medici blood in his veins was always more prone to politics than to prayer.
In the last few days before the horror struck, Rome still couldn't bring herself to believe that her destruction was nigh. Rumors crept like bad smells through the streets. The stonemasons shoring up the city walls told of a mighty army of Spaniards, their savagery honed on the barbarians of the New World, swelled with cohorts of German Lutherans fueled on the juices of the nuns they had raped on their journey south. Yet when the Roman defense led by the nobleman Renzo de Ceri marched through the town touting for volunteers for the barricades, these same bloodthirsty giants became half-dead men marching on their knees, their assholes close to the ground to dispel all the rotting food and bad wine they had guzzled on the way. In this version, the enemy was so pathetic that, even were the soldiers to find the strength to lift their guns, they had no artillery to help them, and with enough stalwart Romans on the battlements, we could drown them in our piss and mockery as they tried to scale their way upward. The joys of war always talk better than they play; still, the prospect of a battle won by urine and bravura was enticing enough to attract a few adventurers with nothing to lose, including our stable boy, who left the next afternoon.
Two days later, the army arrived at the gates and my lady sent me to get him back.
On the evening streets, our louche, loud city had closed up like a clam. Those with enough money had already bought their own private armies, leaving the rest to make do with locked doors and badly boarded windows. While my gait is small and bandied, I have always had a homing pigeon's sense of direction, and for all its twists and turns, Rome had long been mapped inside my head. My lady entertained a client once, a merchant captain who mistook my deformity for a sign of God's special grace and who promised me a fortune if I could find him a way to the Indies across the open sea. But I was born with a recurring nightmare of a great bird picking me up in its claws and dropping me into an empty ocean, and for that, and other reasons, I have always been afraid of water.