Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2015

In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan The beautiful cover of this historical novel is a detail from Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a painting which is referenced in the book.  Sarah Dunant’s eighth novel  In the Company of the Courtesan is set in 16th century Renaissance Italy, and it’s the follow-up to The Birth of Venus, (2003) which I read and enjoyed ages ago.  In this sequel the dwarf Bucino Teodoldo,  and his mistress Fiammetta Bianchini, escape the sack of Rome for Venice – where they must re-establish themselves in a new society where they are unknown.

I liked the way the life of a courtesan is not romanticised.  Bucino is Fiammetta’s pimp, and they work together in a business.  The business involves selling her beauty and her charm, and so the business must covertly fix the damage she suffers to her person from the zealous Lutheran harpies who followed in the wake of the invaders.  So while the partnership skulks in the slums of Venice, La Draga applies potions and lotions to make Fiammetta’s hair grow again, and Bucino seeks out the best in second-hand dresses to flaunt his mistress’s charms once she has regained her figure.   It takes all his skill, not to mention the jewels they were able to secrete during their flight from Rome, to devise a means of making a convincing grand entrance that will lure suitable patronage…

La Draga – like Bucino – doesn’t conform to the physical norm, which is a disaster in a society which judges the worth of a person in shallow ways, but she has created a persona that enables her to support herself.  However, as the reader discovers, she is not what she seems, and it turns out that Bucino was blind to matters that he should, as Fiammetta’s business partner, have been aware of.

So the story involves a bit of mystery and intrigue, but it’s so skilfully constructed that it offers more than that.  Fiammetta is a woman whose mother trained her to use sex as a transaction divorced from feelings, but Fiammetta finds herself yearning for love as most of us do, a feeling that threatens a business that will suffer if it gets about that she gives it away for free.  The novel also depicts the pimp in a different light to the exploitative stereotype because their relationship is one of equals, based on friendship and loyalty.

Renaissance Venice, ever the setting for politics and betrayal, is portrayed in all its complexity.  It’s not the Venice we know as tourists, because although the palaces and wide canals can be entrancing, there is another side to it: dank, dirty and smelly.  The calles and bridges can be violent and dangerous, and an accidental dunking can be perilous indeed.

As is any accusation of witchery…

Entertaining light reading, as always, from this author.

Author: Sarah Dunant
Title: In the Company of the Courtesan
Publisher: Virago press, 2007
ISBN: 9780812974041
Source: Personal library, purchased ages ago from Book Street Hampton, $24.95


Fishpond: In the Company of the Courtesan


  1. It is a beautiful cover. And a great title. The dwarf and the courtesan brings to mind ‘Game of Thrones’. Sounds like an intriguing story.


  2. LOL One of the readers at Goodreads bought a different edition with a more erotic sort of cover a la 50 shades, and found herself too embarrassed to read it on the train!


  3. Never read her but she used present a arts show here in the UK that is back in a time when we still had art shows on uk tv


    • Do you read any historical fiction, Stu? I’m wondering if it’s a genre mainly read by women?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not a lot lisa but have just read a french historic novel the exchange of princesses occasionally


        • Amitav Ghosh writes historical fiction, I’ve just got his #3 in the Ibis Trilogy. I loved the first two.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve a novel call death and mr pickwick on tbr that is based around the artist that illustrated the book originally


            • Was that Boz?


              • Boz was charles dickens pen name it was robert Seymour he illustrated pickwick papers did some of the art work but soon after killed himself


                • So the phrase ‘sketches by Boz’ means pen portraits, not illustrations? I never knew that!


                • Yes they were for a paper if I remember right


  4. Are you on night shift now, Stu, or just wide awake in the middle of the night?


  5. I thought it sounded familiar so I went back through my audio book diary and found I had listened to it in 2011. Didn’t add “rubbish” to the listing so I can’t have thought it was all bad. Actually, I don’t mind historical romances, I’m learning a lot of Tudor and Plantagenet history by cross checking the novels with Wikipedia


    • Oh, I would have enjoyed this as an audio book, I’m sure. I kind-of missing audio books now that I’m not doing the daily commute to work but they just don’t work for me around the house, and I don’t need to drive much these days, I mostly walk, and the driving I do tends to be only 10-15 minutes, not long enough.
      In the Company of the Courtesan isn’t a romance… I don’t think I would have read it if it were. I read a lot of Jean Plaidy when I was a teenager and that was enough to last a lifetime. (Would you believe I won one as a school prize for something, and that’s what started it? Odd choice from a bunch of nuns, eh?)
      But what this novel does is to make the reader uncomfortably aware that people who don’t conform to the norm (a prostitute, a dwarf and a blind cripple) share the human desire to be loved. I can’t say whether they achieve it without giving away plot spoilers, but it’s definitely not a romantic ending, and it leaves the reader wondering whether things have improved at all in our day and age.
      Dunant’s sensitivity to the world of the dwarf reminded me of Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings – have you read that one?


  6. As each comment gets inset, they are down to one character wide on my phone. Luckily I get them as emails. And yes, I’ve had a few Ruth Park to listen to over the last 3 or 4 years but, except for Drums Go Bang, I’m not a fan.


    • Oh dear, sorry, I didn’t know. I don’t use my phone for blog stuff, my eyesight isn’t good enough. And truth be told, I’m a bit resistant anyway, I tried using it for Facebook and Twitter notifications and it nearly drove me mad. But perhaps I should reset the number of comments that can ‘nest’ – can you tell me please, after how many comments does the nesting become a pain?


  7. “Was that Boz” is one word wide, after that, one char. I have a Nokia running Windows, so can’t comment on more popular Android and Apple phones.
    Anyway don’t make a change just for me – I tipped my phone on its side and that worked!


    • Yes, but you won’t be the only one. I’ll change it so that it stops nesting after 5 comments instead of 10.


  8. […] 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 light fiction with a feminist slant on […]


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