Sarah Dunant – In the Company of the Courtesan

With their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiametta and her companion dwarf Bucino escape the sack of Rome. It’s 1527. They head for the shimmering, decadent city of Venice. Sarah Dunant’s epic novel of sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy is a story about the sins of pleasure and the pleasures of sin, an intoxicating mix of fact and fiction, and a dazzling portrait of one of the world’s greatest cities at its most potent moment in history.

Venice has always been a place that held a special fascination for me. I’ve never visited there, unfortunately, but I’ve always meant to go one day. Why, you might ask? Well, family legend has it that our forebears were glass blowers from Murano, who came to the Netherlands somewhere in the sixteenth century. Due to this rather tenuous connection, I always enjoy books set in (alternate history) Venice. The ones I read most recently are the first two books in the The Heirs of Alexandria series by Mercedes Lackey, Dave Freer and Eric Flint. Of course, there are many fantasy books set in a Venice-like city, such as Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade (which is actually set in Venice) or Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, whose home town of Camorr is heavily based on Venice. So after reading something about courtesans, which featured some recommendations for further (fictional) reading, when I saw In the Company of the Courtesan on the list and that it was set in Venice, it immediately went on my wish list. And I’m glad I ran across it, because it was definitely worth the read!

In the Company of the Courtesan is the story of Fiametta and Bucino and how they rebuilt Fiametta’s career after they’ve been forced to flee Rome. These two are the heart and soul of the novel and I loved the bond between them, the banter and the bickering. What I really liked, was the fact that there is no romance between them. Instead they are fast friends, business partners and their own kind of family. The narration is from Bucino’s point of view, which is both a bold and smart choice. It’s smart because Bucino’s view of society is unique. As a dwarf he’s both highly visible and invisible at the same time. He gets to go places most people can’t, but is often overlooked or disregarded because of his size and appearance. I call it a daring choice for a narrator, because it not only demands research into Renaissance Venice and into the courtesan culture of the time and the history of the sack of Rome, but also into Dwarfism, the physical problems they might run into and how they were regarded in Renaissance society. Of course, I am no historian, but it certainly seems as if Ms Dunant did her due diligence in that regard, as at a lay man’s glance, the book seems accurate in its depictions of Venice, courtesans and dwarves in the period the book is set in.

Surprisingly, for a book about a courtesan, there is surprisingly little truly adult content. Instead, Fiametta’s occupation is treated like a business and her success not only important to herself, but to her steadily-growing entourage as well. Bucino, Fiametta’s maid Gabriella, her personal physician La Draga and others all work really hard to make Fiametta as beautiful, strong and healthy as she can be, so she can remain one of the most sought-after courtesans of her age. At times it is a cynical look at the business of love, but one I found fascinating in its complexity. It was interesting to see that a courtesan needed to be more than a pretty face, but needed wit and conversation as well to be successful and how much work went into that success. I liked the look at the more seedy side of life in sixteenth century Venice; no Doge’s court here. Fiametta is by no means a streetwalker, but she is not part of respectable society and is made to feel it when she mingles with the high and mighty. It also became clear how much people lived on the edge of subsistence in those days. These days, if you lose your job or become unfit for work due to health, there are always social benefits to help you out. In sixteenth century Venice? Not so much. There it was either work or starve and the fear of destitution in which many people lived, was palpable in both Fiametta and Bucino throughout the novel.

The character of La Draga was fascinating. She brought an element of the mystical and even supernatural to the story, attributed with witch powers and powers of healing. Apart from being a great character in her own right, I really loved the strange chemistry between her and Bucino, which led me to keep speculating whether they would or they wouldn’t get past their differences to a more harmonious connection. I was kept guessing till the end and that made the story all the more compelling. However, La Draga wasn’t the only mystery contained in this novel. I loved how there were questions and mysteries sprinkled throughout the narrative, which were somehow all solved at the end of the novel, such as the theft of some jewels and the little locked book of Petrarch’s poems Bucino rescued from Rome.

The one complaint I might have had is that I would have liked to have seen more of Fiametta in action, as it were. There are only one or two scenes where we see her ply her trade and charm men with just her wit and her looks. Instead we mostly see the private side of Fiametta, which however interesting I found it, didn’t exactly showcase just why she was such an enchanting and alluring figure for her clients.

Published in 2006, In the Company of the Courtesan isn’t exactly a new book, but it is a book that deserves a wide readership. Perfect for fans of historical fiction and lovers of Venice, In the Company of the Courtesan is a gorgeous, pleasurable read and the perfect start to my book resolution to read more historical fiction in 2012.


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