Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2008

The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant

Update 30/3/17 Please note: the gremlins got to an earlier version of this review – I think I had somehow restored the wrong version.  This updated review is an edited version of what I wrote in my journal back on July 17th, 2007.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is historical fiction set in Florence in the 15th century when Lorenzo di Medici had died and Savonarola had driven out his dull brother Piero in order to impose fundamentalist religion and the ‘burning of the vanities’.  Alessandra is a young girl aspiring to be an artist at a time when marriage was her only option and a painter was only an artisan and of no social standing whatsoever.

Her parents marry Alessandra off to Cristoforo Longello, an older man in his forties, who turns out not only to be gay but also to be having a long term passion for Alessandra’s brother Tomaso.   She has agreed to this marriage only to escape being sent to a convent, the only safe place for unmarried girls when the French army threaten to invade after negotiations break down.  She quite likes Cristoforo because he has a lively mind and he’s interested in art, but their union is blighted by her discovery of Tomaso as her rival.  She determines to make a life in art, even as she spends enjoyable times with Cristoforo at an intellectual level.


The illness of the unnamed painter who is working in her parents’ chapel is the catalyst for Alessandra to take him to her bed.  Doubt about the coming child’s paternity coincides with Cristoforo leaving to care for Tomaso, who has been tortured by Savonarola’s men in their pursuit of homosexuals. Things go from bad to worse when Tomaso under torture accuses the painter of homosexuality, and Cristoforo has to buy safe passage to Rome for him, even as Savanarola falls from power.

Alessandra’s feelings mirror the conflict in Florence at this time.  She is conflicted between the strict morality of Savonarola and her sensual love of the painter and their shared passion for art.  She brings her child up in a convent until the painter finds them and takes the child away to teach her his craft.  Alessandra lives on into old age, pursuing her love of painting and drawing, but the story ends with a rather strange twist.

Beautifully written and with an engaging plot, this novel may persuade many readers that it was possible for a woman to have a career as an artist during the Renaissance.  The reality seems to be somewhat different, because although there were some women artists at this time, it was unlikely to happen without family support.  According to Artcyclopedia, women artists of this period were generally privately taught and drafted into the family business by their fathers.

Author: Sarah Dunant
Title: the Birth of Venus
Publisher: Random House, 2004
ISBN: 9780812968972
Source: personal library


  1. […] it was first published, and I went on to read her historical novels and reviewed them on this blog: The Birth of Venus, (2003); In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, and Sacred Hearts, (2009).  I enjoyed them as […]


  2. I rarely read historical fiction, but I know someone who would love this.


    • I don’t read it often either, but this one was a lucky find.


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