I’d been meaning to read something by Sarah Dunant for a long time. “Italy” (it wasn’t organized as that until the 19th century) in the 16th century isn’t a period of history I know very well, and since the book was a gift, I thought, why not? I have seldom read a book of historical fiction that is terrible; as a genre they tend to be a cut above other novels (at least to someone like me who has a predisposition for them in the first place). Likewise, it is untrue to say I have read many novels of historical fiction that were flawless (but Patrick O’Brian is a safe best). All of this is to say: I enjoyed this novel, and while the characters and the setting were engaging, the plot itself was a bit . . . let’s say, meandering, and like so many novels, it quite fell down on the ending.
The characters include the historically verifiable (poet and pornographer Pietro Aretino, the painter called Titian) and the obscure, the fictional—the heroine, Fiammetta Bianchini, and the narrator, Bucino Teoboldi. These two are selected from the ranks of the sordid and often ignored: Fiammetta is a courtesan (a Cardinal’s courtesan when the book begins in Rome) and Bucino is her business-partner dwarf. Both are appealing, interesting, and empathetic; their struggles are down-to-earth, and Bucino finds much about the otherwise otherworldly beauty of Venice to gripe about. There are wonderful period details about the codes of courtesans in Venice, and it is strictly of its time: Bucino befriends both Jews and Muslims but thinks, with regret, that they are going to Hell. He is not sure about himself, either, as being a deformed dwarf most people think he is a demon—or at least morally reprehensible—anyway.
Though the 18th century Venice of Scherzo could not be called prudish or refined, by comparison with In the Company of the Courtesan, it seems quite vanilla. The language here maintains, to quote a review on the back of the book, “gusty vulgarity.” There’s plenty of graphic slang and swear words and much remarking on bodily functions and conjunctions (that is, after all, Fiammetta’s trade). If you revel in that kind of thing, you won’t be taken aback, but to be honest it was a bit jarring at first. Bucino and Fiammetta’s road is likewise tough, barely escaping with their lives when they flee the sack of Rome (having swallowed jewels, and Fiammetta having had her hair hacked off by fanatical Protestants); they get conned and hoodwinked in Venice and find it challenging to practice their dishonourable but lucrative trade.
The secondary characters are less successful than the leads, and the plotting is not among its strengths, but for a solid and historical character study, you could do much worse.