Book review: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Cardinal’s courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini is a born survivor so when Rome is brutally sacked in 1527, she gathers what little she can, swallows her jewels for safekeeping and heads off to the shimmering, simmering city of Venice.

Thursday, 7th February 2013, 9:00 am

Accompanying her on the journey is Bucino Teodoldi, her dwarf companion and business partner, whose life is inextricably bound to his mistress and who will need all his natural guile to protect her from the dangers that lie ahead.

For those already familiar with the Renaissance Italy conjured up with such startling brutality, carnality and veracity in Sarah Dunant’s thrilling novel The Birth of Venus, you will need no second guess as to the provenance of In the Company of the Courtesan.

Dunant has become a thrilling teller of Italian tales; an all-seeing, all-knowing guide who transports us back to the ‘louche, loud’ and magnificent medieval cities where hypocrisy, greed, pleasure seeking and sexual politicking are the stuff of everyday life.

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Against this powerful, atmospheric backdrop, Dunant brings us a seductive mix of fact and fiction, dazzling portraits of charismatic characters both real and richly imagined, and stories of such earthy and colourful complexity that Renaissance Italy becomes a living, breathing, believable world.

Here we are plunged into the turmoil of 16th century Rome when an invading army under the leadership of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V blows a hole in the wall of the eternal city and lets in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops hell bent on pillage and punishment.

In a luxury house, filled with the warmth of wealth and security, the ever-resourceful Fiammetta and Bucino, her wily, bandy-legged dwarf who has perfected only one strategy in life, ‘to keep his belly full,’ are already planning their future.

After a narrow escape and with Fiammetta’s fabulous jewels churning in their stomachs, they head for Venice, still at the height of its power and influence and a honey pot for merchants, travellers and adventurers.

And it is in this rich, beautiful but squalid city that they start to rebuild their business and use their wit and cunning to infiltrate Venetian society.

As a partnership they are invincible – Bucino, clever with a sharp eye and a wicked tongue and Fiammetta, beautiful and shrewd, 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.

But Fiammetta and Bucino’s greatest challenge comes from a young crippled woman, a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and hearts with devastating consequences for them all.

With its lively sexual politics, dark irony, joie-de-vivre and charming, chilling corruption, Dunant’s stunning story paints an unforgettable portrait of a city at its most powerful and of the cosmopolitan people who wheeled and dealed, worked and played and made Venice the magical, mesmerising city of glass, water ... and duplicity.

(Virago, paperback, £7.99)