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The Birth of Venus

Cover of The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

A Novel
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This new deluxe eBook edition features more than eighty additional pages of exclusive, author-approved annotations throughout the text, which contain new illustrations and photographs, to enrich your reading experience. You can access the eBook annotations with a simple click or tap on your eReader via the convenient links. Access them as you read the novel or as supplemental material after finishing the entire story. There is also Random House Reader's Circle bonus content, which is sure to inspire discussion at book clubs everywhere.

Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florence palazzo. A child of the Renaissance with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the artist's abilities.

But Alessandra's parents have made plans for their daughter, and she is soon married off to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, the reign of the Medicis, with their love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, is being threatened by the hellfire preaching and increasing brutality of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola and his reactionary followers. As the city shudders with violence and change, Alessandra must find her own way--and finally explore the passions she's kept so long at bay.

"Simply amazing, so brilliantly written . . . almost intolerably exciting at times, and at others, equally poignant."--Antonia Fraser

"A broad mural bursting with color, passion, and intrigue."--People

This new deluxe eBook edition features more than eighty additional pages of exclusive, author-approved annotations throughout the text, which contain new illustrations and photographs, to enrich your reading experience. You can access the eBook annotations with a simple click or tap on your eReader via the convenient links. Access them as you read the novel or as supplemental material after finishing the entire story. There is also Random House Reader's Circle bonus content, which is sure to inspire discussion at book clubs everywhere.

Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florence palazzo. A child of the Renaissance with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the artist's abilities.

But Alessandra's parents have made plans for their daughter, and she is soon married off to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, the reign of the Medicis, with their love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, is being threatened by the hellfire preaching and increasing brutality of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola and his reactionary followers. As the city shudders with violence and change, Alessandra must find her own way--and finally explore the passions she's kept so long at bay.

"Simply amazing, so brilliantly written . . . almost intolerably exciting at times, and at others, equally poignant."--Antonia Fraser

"A broad mural bursting with color, passion, and intrigue."--People

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 One

    Looking back now, i see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn't as if Florence didn't have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn't walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.

    The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God's message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ's miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.

    I was almost ten years old when Domenico Ghirlandaio completed his frescoes for the Tornabuoni family in the central chapel of Santa Maria Novella. I remember it well, because my mother told me to. "You should remember this moment, Alessandra," she said. "These paintings will bring great glory to our city." And all those who saw them thought that they would.

    My father's fortune was rising out of the steam of the dyeing vats in the back streets of Santa Croce then. The smell of cochineal still brings back memories of him coming home from the warehouse, the dust of crushed insects from foreign places embedded deep in his clothes. By the time the painter came to live with us in 1492-I remember the date because Lorenzo de' Medici died that spring-the Florentine appetite for flamboyant cloth had made us rich. Our newly completed palazzo was in the east of the city, between the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the church of Sant' Ambrogio. It rose four stories high around two inner courtyards, with its own small walled garden and space for my father's business on the ground floor. Our coat of arms adorned the outside walls, and while my mother's good taste curbed much of the exuberance that attends new money, we all knew it was only a matter of time before we too would be sitting for our own Gospel portraits, albeit private ones.

    The night the painter arrived is sharp as an etching in my memory. It is winter, and the stone balustrades have a coating of frost as my sister and I collide on the stairs in our night shifts, hanging over the edge to watch the horses arrive in the main courtyard. It's late and the house has been asleep, but my father's homecoming is reason for celebration, not simply for his safe return but because, amid the panniers of samples, there is always special cloth for the family.

    Plautilla is already beside herself with anticipation, but then she is betrothed and thinking only of her dowry. My brothers, on the other hand, are noticeable by their absence. For all our family's good name and fine cloth, Tomaso and Luca live...
About the Author-
  • Sarah Dunant has written eight novels and edited two books of essays. She has worked widely in print, television, and radio, and until recently hosted the leading BBC Radio arts program, Night Waves. Now a full-time writer, she is adapting her novels Transgressions and Mapping the Edge for the screen. Dunant has two children and lives in London and Florence.
    To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 15, 2003
    In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment. Alessandra, 16, is tall, sharp-tongued and dauntingly clever. At first reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, she changes her mind when she meets elegant 48-year-old Cristoforo, who is well-versed in art and literature. He promises to give her all the freedom she wants—and she finds out why on her wedding night. Her disappointment and frustration are soon overshadowed by the growing cloud of madness and violence hanging over Florence, nourished by the sermons of the fanatically pious Savonarola. As the wealthy purge their palazzos of "low" art and luxuries, Alessandra gives in to the dangerous attraction that draws her to a tormented young artist commissioned to paint her family's chapel. With details as rich as the brocade textiles that built Alessandra's family fortune, Dunant (Mapping the Edge
    ; Transgressions
    ; etc.) masterfully recreates Florence in the age of the original bonfire of the vanities. The novel moves to its climax as Savonarola's reign draws to a bloody close, with the final few chapters describing Alessandra's fate and hinting at the identity of her artist lover. While the story is rushed at the end, the author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot. Forget Baedecker and Vasari's Lives of the Artists
    . Dunant's vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil. (Feb. 24)

    Forecast:
    Dunant's foray into historical fiction (she is best known for her literary suspense novels) will inevitably be compared to
    Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier readers will certainly enjoy the novel, though its meatier historical background and more robust
    prose style set it apart. 11-city author tour.

  • The New York Times Book Review "A witty, ingenious historical novel."
  • The Wall Street Journal "The plot is full of twists. . . . Dunant credibly re-creates a past world and evokes a young woman's passion for its art."
  • Baltimore Sun "Seductively well-written . . . This novel satisfies on many levels."
  • The Washington Post Book World "Smart and engaging . . . Dunant does a remarkable job of evoking Florence."
  • Time "A beguiling story."
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    Random House Publishing Group
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  • Copyright Protection (DRM) required by the Publisher may be applied to this title to limit or prohibit printing or copying. File sharing or redistribution is prohibited. Your rights to access this material expire at the end of the lending period. Please see Important Notice about Copyrighted Materials for terms applicable to this content.

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A Novel
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