In the Company of the Courtesan

Written by Sarah Dunant
Review by Lessa J. Scherrer

The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant’s first historical novel, is one of my all-time favorite books. Dunant writes with such power and passion, you can feel the blood of the characters pulse just beneath her words on the page. Her second historical, In the Company of the Courtesan, does not disappoint in this regard. She brings to splashing, stinking life the splendors and horrors of 16th-century Venice. You can smell the putrid muck as they dredge the canals, feel glass crunch beneath your feet on the island of Murano, and hear the bloodlust in the voices of Rome’s Protestant invaders.

After using their wits to survive the sack of Rome, dwarf Bucino Teodoldo, manager, entertainer and friend of the great courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, leads his mistress home to Venice with only the clothes on their backs and what few jewels they could swallow. Starving, broke, her beauty ruined, Fiammetta falls into despair, until Bucino’s cunning devotion and a mysterious blind healer named La Draga help to restore her former glory and re-establish her career. As their fortunes rise, Venice herself offers temptations as seductive as her famed courtesans. A former adversary, a young lover and a Turkish collector of exotics each test Bucino’s faith in himself and his lady’s loyalty.

Dunant’s story is well researched and fascinating in its detail. The scene in which various city courtesans advertise for new patrons at Sunday Mass is a treat. Yet the history never overwhelms the story. Where the plot of The Birth of Venus was as tight as marquetry work, In the Company of the Courtesan hangs a bit more loosely. But you will be glad of the extra time spent in the company of these characters.