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In the Company of the Courtesan    by Sarah Dunant order for
In the Company of the Courtesan
by Sarah Dunant
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The author of the acclaimed The Birth of Venus, brings us another brilliant historical novel, set in Renaissance Italy and narrated by Bucino Teodoldo. Born with the 'body of a dwarf and the mind of a philosopher', Bucino works in the household of a young, thoroughly pragmatic Roman courtesan, the beautiful and intelligent Fiammetta Bianchini, who was raised to the trade by her mother. Barely twenty-one, Fiammetta is rich and successful, with a Cardinal as patron.

Then comes the 1527 sack and despoiling of Rome by German and Spanish troops. Though traumatized and injured, Fiammetta and Bucino survive to flee Rome together, each having swallowed some of the courtesan's jewels. Despite Bucino's terror of deep water, they take over Fiammetta's childhood home in Venice (her mother has died in the meantime) and agree to work in partnership to recoup their fortunes in this city where 'Gossip travels faster than smell'. Bucino works as the 'house and gate keeper'.

It's a long, carefully engineered process starting with the regrowth of Fiammetta's lovely hair (shaved off by Lutheran women) and treatment of a scar on her forehead. To help with this, she calls on La Draga, a blind, deformed healer, with whom Bucino seems always at odds - he tells the reader it's because 'in some way she makes me feel smaller than I am.' Desperate after the mysterious theft of their most valuable gem, and needing patrons, Bucino blackmails an old acquaintance, acerbic writer Pietro Aretino to sponsor Fiammetta. Thus, her Venetian career is launched.

Dunant portrays Venice (from a dwarf's-eye view) as a city thrumming with prosperity and busy with trade - 'Where Rome made her money selling forgiveness for sins, Venice grows fat on feeding them.' She shows us its Jewish ghetto and 'bridge battles' between different groups of workers, that become popular entertainment. Fiammetta is painted by Titian and falls in love with a younger nobleman, while Bucino falls in the canal and almost drowns. He is also offered, but refuses, a place of respect and riches in Istanbul by an aristocratic Turk.

Dwarf and courtesan have more than friendship between them. Rather, it's a life partnership, occasionally tested by relationships with others. The mysterious La Draga gradually takes on prominence in the story as Bucino's interest in her grows, leading to a most unexpected, but somehow appropriate, conclusion. Ultimately, In the Company of the Courtesan is a story of many different kinds of love and prejudice, set against the glorious tapestry of the floating city in its prime.

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