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on 21 February 2004
Art, history, politics, sex, lust, and love are all combined in this truly engaging story set in the city of Florence in the 1490's. The Catholic Church is fighting for supremacy, as a world of fundamentalist Christian doctrine is bought to life. And Durant does a fine job of recreating this rich and provocative period in European history, as she deftly and powerfully brings to life the desires, fears and hopes of Alessandra Cecchi, the young protagonist of the story. Through a complex, yet common sense first person narrative Durant creates a world steeped in rich historical drama and tragedy, as the lies, hypocrisy, betrayals and family loyalties of the Cecchi family are laid bare.
The focus of this masterful first person narrative is the young, headstrong and willful Alessandra who, not quite fifteen becomes intoxicated with a young painter's abilities, when his father commissions him to paint the chapel walls of their Florentine palazzo. For Alessandra her teenage freedom is threatened when her parents arrange to marry her to a wealthy, much older man who is having a clandestine affair with another member of the family. The family struggles are played out against the backdrop of civil unrest between the followers of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola and those of the Medici family, with their love of comfort, sumptuousness, art and sculpture.
Part historical treatise and part love story, The Birth of Venus is packed with religious and visual symbolism, as Durant effortlessly describes a truly extraordinary period in history. The strength of the narrative is in the recreation of the sights, sounds and smells of the period: From the bloody details of Alessandra's pregnancy, to the gory descriptions of the plague, and from the explicit sex scenes of Alessandra's virginal wedding night, to the beautiful descriptions of the paintings of the time. The choices one makes in life and the conflicts between faith, and basic human need are at the center of this fine novel. We see this reflected in Alessandra, as she grows and matures and meets many dire challenges. This is a gorgeous novel and is highly recommended.
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on 9 May 2004
Sarah Dunant weaves a tapestry as rich and as the cloths of Alessandra Cecchi's merchant father's, in her book about late fifteenth century Florence. This is the uplifting story of the indomitable spirit of a talented and fiercely intelligent young woman, and how her spirit finds a way in a repressive religious and masculine world. It is reminiscent of "Girl with a Perl Earring" in its ability to evoke the texture, smells, sights and sounds of a city and a culture of five centuries ago. The story is riveting, the characters deep, multifaceted and engaging. This is a first class read. Sarah Dunant has created a beautiful, soaring spirit in Alessandra, a woman who will stay with you long after you've finished the book. Ms Dunant has also managed to create some of the most beautiful passages of physical intimacy I've read. Compelling, hauntingly beautiful, a must read!
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on 18 February 2006
I have just finished this book and every page took my breath away. You are left at the end of every chapter guessing what will happen next, and I was often surprised at the outcome. It is a whirlwind novel and all credit should go to the author. I fell in love with the main character Alessandra and together we explored Florence and it's people at first with naivity then with the utmost confidence. This is a must for everyone!!!
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on 20 September 2006
This is one of the most sensual books I have ever read, and not just because of the romantic plot which comprises the book's core. Even when witnessing the turbulent and frequently horrific events in Renaissance Florence through the eyes of 15-year-old Alessandra, Sarah Dunant's prose is always seductive and captivating. I was breathless with anticipation every time I turned a page. The best book I've read in years.
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on 27 August 2005
I am not into historical novels but as I was going to Florence on holiday and the subject matter involved the city I bought this book. What a book! It blew me away. As I read it I feel in love with the main character Alessandra. The spirit, vivacity, touching innocence of this woman makes you want to put your hand around her and take her away from Rennaisance Florence - though I very much doubt she would have allowed it.
Dunant has produced a masterpiece. The language is to be savoured as she draws you into centuries gone by with its sight and smells as if it was real. I cannot wait for her next book. Read and Recommend.
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on 24 January 2007
To begin with i thought the novel was a bit slow, however, i did manage to get into the novel, and enjoyed it thoroughly once i did. The writer manages to create great tension between the narrator and the young mysterious painter, initially i found some actions of the characters (i'm trying not to give anything away!) quite difficult to understand, but Dunant manages to justify each characters acts through the narrator, and you begin to understand things more as she matures.

Through Dunant's novel, you realise how magnificent the renaissance was, but also some of the catastrophes that took place. The descriptions of the art in the book are excellent, and it left me extremely interested in the work of michelangelo and other renaissance artists.

Overall, it is an excellent book and a pleasure to read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 30 September 2013
Let me say right away that I love everything Sarah Dunant creates - for me, she does not put a foot wrong and her complex and absorbing tales are couched in such excellent prose, that you never want them to end. The Birth of Venus is another piece of perfection.

An elderly nun passes away after what seemed to her community to have been a long and painful illness. However, when her body is taken to be reverently prepared for burial, what is discovered is as unexpected and challenging for the reader as for the shocked nuns. We spin back from there to the beginning of a wonderful story of Renaissance Florence, encompassing the brilliance and brutality of the City State itself, the madness of Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities, and the impossibility of a young woman having any life other than that chosen by her father. Alessandra wants to paint and when a troubled young artist comes to her home to work on the family chapel, all sorts of dreams and emotions are stirred, and a shared love of art becomes a shared love. .

Alessandra's father meanwhile, has arranged a convenient marriage for her to an older man who has his own deep and dangerous secret. Whilst this husband does not love his young wife, he comes to like and respect her, as they reach a mutual understanding and can protect each other in the fraught atmosphere of fanaticism prevailing in Florence at this time. She also has a measure of freedom, as a married woman, that otherwise she could never have imagined and her ability to move around the City and become involved in her art and her artist broadens her mind in many, many ways, leaving her with few illusions about man and his hard-wired cruelty. This relationship defines the young woman's whole life and brings with it enormous joy and painful sacrifice; it is a love story that will make you weep. Much is revealed when the dead nun - the much older Alessandra - is divested of her habit.

No reader will be disappointed. It is quite simply imaginative, character driven, historical fiction at its best. My advice is to read everything Sarah Dunant writes.
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on 13 December 2004
This book, set in 15th century Florence, is told through the eyes of the main character Alessandra, a 14 year old girl who has led a sheltered life and who longs to paint. She possesses a strong mind and tells the story with such grace and humility that even the most distasteful parts still read like fine poetry. Alessandra comes from a wealthy family and due to the turbulent times ends up married before she is even 15. She befriends a painter and boldly challenges him to review her work.
I especially loved the references to art and faith, and feel this is a story many will quickly jump in and sail along with. I found myself anxious to find out what would happen next, as the book is not only written with a beautiful voice but has the added interest of history, realism, and mystery. Quite simply, you want to find out what happens to this girl.
I would recommend this for a great long weekend. Turn off the phone and snuggle in for a great story.
From the author of The Difference Now.
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on 14 September 2012
All good novels have a double plot. The plots in this one have to do with Savonarola's effect on Florence (and a bit more widely, the counter-reformation) and with a young woman who wants to be a painter. Mills and Boon meet the Medici, so to speak.

It's a good read: flows easily, gives you a sense of the times. Not quite as good as Sacred Hearts, which deals with the period just before The Birth of Venus. Both novels are set in the convents which provided "women's spaces" at the time and how the counter-reformation wiped out these places of security for more rebellious women. But I'm generally interested in the phenomenon of how women can carve out these spaces for themselves. And it's far more pleasant to imagine the spaces through a novel than in the dry work of "proper historians".

So I enjoyed the novel. It's well constructed and written and provided good stimulating holiday reading. Read it if you're interested in the times of religious change around the emergence of protestantism and the response of the official Catholic church.
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on 5 April 2016
Set in Florence in the time of the Borgia reign, the story follows Alessandra's journey through the becoming a woman, a wife and a refugee from the fallout of papal politicking. Having just finished watching The Borgia series on Netflix, I was looking forward to a few more historic links but these were fewer and further between than I would have liked. All in all enjoyable enough but not riveting.
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