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When Rome is invaded in 1527 by a pillaging army of Spanish and German Lutheran troops, the high life is over for Fiammetta Bianchini, a beautiful, young, high ranking courtesan who could count Vatican Cardinals among her select clientele. Shorn of her hair and her riches looted bar a few gems she has managed to swallow, she escapes with Bucino, a dwarf in her employ, and together they travel to Venice, hoping to make their fortunes again.

As the great city of commerce during the height of its power and influence, Venice is the perfect location where the courtesan's business of sex is just another trade where clients are selected for their influence and mutual favours can be gained. Dunant writes well here, with the same easy readability and unostentatious sense of the period that made her Renaissance Florence setting of 'The Birth of Venus' such a delight. Blended into the story here are historical characters such as Titian and Aretino and fine details and information on the period, such as how the courtesans would attract clients at church and the reason why the convents were so full of the daughters of nobles in those days (to cut down on the number of expensive dowries and divisions of estates that would result from a marriage). All these kinds of details are relevant to the subject and not just thrown in for colour or to show off the amount of research done.

The real key to the book being so enjoyable is through the sympathetic charm, intelligence and wit of its narrator - the dwarf Bucino. His small stature gives us, quite literally, a unique perspective as an outsider on the grandeur of Rome and Venice, as well as his view of his Lady's affairs, which is not quite as dispassionate as he would like it to be. And it's same inability to remain impassive while looking in on the riches and beauty as well as the brutality and corruption of 16th Century Venice that draws the reader into the book and keeps them involved through to the last page.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 February 2007
For many years Sarah Dunant presented the late show. She is also the author of seven crime novels and creator of her famous sleuth, Hannah Wolfe.

I found this book much, much more enjoyable than I expected it to be, so it was a really pleasant surprise. This is in no way a slight on the writing capabilities of the author, who has proved her calibre with several previous offerings. The problem was that initially the subject matter of the book did not really appeal to me, but my mind was soon changed.

The book is about life in Renaissance Italy and begins with the sacking of the eternal city of Rome by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor and the subsequent journey of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini and her dwarf companion Bucino, as they leave Rome with their stomachs full of the jewels they have swallowed and head for the city of Venice. How they manage to infiltrate themselves into Venetian society.

Together they make the ideal partnership. On the one hand the quick witted and intelligent Bucino, on the other his mistress Fiammetta, a beautiful woman, trained in the art of entertaining and satisfying men who have the money to support her.

This is a story of desire, deception, sin, loyalty, in fact everything that men and women bring out in one another, sometimes with heartbreaking and devastating consequences. Beautifully written, sometimes witty, sometimes sad, but always interesting.
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VINE VOICEon 23 January 2007
Last year I read Sarah Dunant's 'The Birth of Venus', it was my book of the year and I didn't want it to end. It was a hard act to follow and although I enjoyed 'In the Company of the Courtesan', it didn't quite reach the grade.

The book covered a lot of ground; from the ransacking of Rome in 1527, through the exile of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini and her dwarf companion, Bucino, to their eventual arrival in Venice and their subsequent struggles to establish themselves with little financial provision.

The characters are wonderful and beautifully described, as is the feel of the watery wonderland / slum that was Venice at the time. My main problem with the book were the passages of philosophical discussion on subjects such as the morals of prostitution and who is actually the sinner. Without these this would have been a masterpiece.

Sarah Dunant has established herself in the genre of historical fiction and I shall certainly be eagerly awaiting her next book.
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I was really looking forward to reading this and the first couple of chapters were great: well-researched, interesting character in Fiammetta, good writing. But then my interest started to pall. I think the problem, for me, was that the background was great but there isn't really much of a plot to fill out the centre of the novel.

I suspect that your response to the narrative voice of Bucino, the dwarf, will govern whether you love this book or simply find it mediocre (as I did). And Bucino was a tedious character for me. He simply never progressed beyond being 'the dwarf', the grotesque figure who is never a whole person in either his own mind or the novel as a whole. His narrative rambled, some of it interesting, some of it less so. He claims to know nothing about art and then tells the story of Aretino's obscene sonnets in great detail, just a mouthpiece for the author's own research. Fascinating as this is it's just another digression that adds nothing to the plot, such as it is.

I really wanted to know about Fiammetta (and Venetian courtesans) but actually once she's established (and it takes a good couple of hundred pages of not much happening before we reach that point), then suddenly the narrative whisks forward seven years and she's at the top of her game. The final 'twist' seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was unconvinced by where the story went.

So overall this isn't by any means a bad book, and is far better researched and written than much historical fiction. But would I read another sarah Dunant? On the basis of this, I'm afraid not.
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Don't let the title of this book put you off. It's a very enjoyable and well written piece of historical fiction and there is not a single sex scene in it. Sarah Dunant brings Renaissance Italy to life and skillfully integrates real people and events into this fictional story.

Fiammetta is a high class Italian courtesan in the 1530s, who is forced to flee Rome after the brutal invasion and sacking of the city. She escapes with her faithful servant and companion, the dwarf Bucino, having only a few jewels to her name. It is from Bucino's point of view that the story is told (apart from a brief departure into the third person early on, for no apparent reason).

Bucino and Fiammetta settle in Venice and work together as a team to establish her as one of Venice's leading courtesans. As she becomes more successful, the dynamics of their relationship change subtly.

I enjoyed this book very much. I was caught up in the characters and the decisions that they made. I found the ending very moving and I was sorry to say goodbye to these characters. I also enjoyed finding out more about Renaissance Italy.

The way that Sarah Dunant brings historical figures into the story is very clever and makes it feel very real. About halfway through you realise the significance of the cover illustration. As Sarah Dunant explains in the author's notes, it is a painting by the artist Titian, most probably of an Italian courtesan of that time. In her book, she has Titian painting that very portrait with Fiammetta as his model.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading historical fiction. It reminded me of reading books by Philippa Gregory or Rose Tremain (although their books are set in quite different historical eras).
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on 17 June 2009
Like all Sarah Dunant's novels, this is a story first and foremost, and an involving and gripping one. Told through the eyes of a courtesan's dwarf, it is the tale of their flight from Rome, savagely sacked by the Lutherans, to Venice, where they had to set up their business all over again. A fascinating insight into the early sixteenth century, when venice was at its most successful, and into the life of a courtesan, it cast a brooding and magical spell over my recent visit there. Underlying the story is the pathos of this small man, the indignities and the insecurities he suffers as a result of his deformity. Very touching.
I remember Sarah Dunant from her days of chairing BBC2's Late Review, where her enthusiasm and intense curiosity about the works she was reviewing and the people she was interviewing injected a vitality into the programme that has never been quite emulated by her successors. That same passion permeates every page of her writing.
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For many years Sarah Dunant presented the late show. She is also the author of seven crime novels and creator of her famous sleuth, Hannah Wolfe.

I found this book much, much more enjoyable than I expected it to be, so it was a really pleasant surprise. This is in no way a slight on the writing capabilities of the author, who has proved her calibre with several previous offerings. The problem was that initially the subject matter of the book did not really appeal to me, but my mind was soon changed.

The book is about life in Renaissance Italy and begins with the sacking of the eternal city of Rome by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor and the subsequent journey of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini and her dwarf companion Bucino, as they leave Rome with their stomachs full of the jewels they have swallowed and head for the city of Venice. How they manage to infiltrate themselves into Venetian society.

Together they make the ideal partnership. On the one hand the quick witted and intelligent Bucino, on the other his mistress Fiammetta, a beautiful woman, trained in the art of entertaining and satisfying men who have the money to support her.

This is a story of desire, deception, sin, loyalty, in fact everything that men and women bring out in one another, sometimes with heartbreaking and devastating consequences. Beautifully written, sometimes witty, sometimes sad, but always interesting.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 March 2007
I absolutely loved the first half of the book, I couldn't put it down. The irreverent humor of Bucino the dwarf as he told his tale of his and Fiammetta's escape from Rome, arrival in Venice and the reversal of their fortunes was very entertaining. Add to that the lush views of Venice and it's residents really made for fun reading.

Then about half to two thirds of the way through the plot slowed down measurably, the big mystery fairly predictable leading to a somewhat trite and not too surprising finish.

A very quick read, will do for a beach book or on a rainy weekend. I bought it fairly cheap at the big warehouse store, but I think I'd be a bit angry if I'd paid a higher price for it. If you must, get it from the library first, then if you love it buy it. 3.5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 22 April 2008
This is a very good book. It is well-written in my opinion. The history is fascinating as are the characters of the dwarf and the courtesan. I feel, however, that the courtesan's character could have been more developed; she only once displayed 'weakness' when waivering from her calling. Bucino, on the other hand, reveals much about his character and his feelings for his Lady. I also wish the character of La Draga had been explored more fully. I feel as though we could have received more insight; however, this was a failing of the narrative device. Having said that, Bucino's point of view was highly entertaining and enlightening. I also thoroughly enjoyed the vivid depiction of Venice. Overall an excellent but not perfect book.
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on 2 December 2007
A compelling historical novel weaved around the sins of pleasure and the pleasure of sins! Set in 16C Italy the main characters are Fiammetta Bianchini, a Courtesan and her dwarf manservant Bucino Teodoldi. The story narrated by Bucino starts with them having to flee from their home in Rome after the city comes under siege. Fiammetta was originally from Venice, so it here that they decide to take refuge and rebuild their business. Together they make a good team, Fiammetta knows of no other life than the entertainment of gentleman, whilst Bucino takes care of the business side of things. To recover from the ravages suffered in Rome to Fiammetta's health and beauty it is necessary for them to call on the services of La Draga. La Draga, Elena Crusichi was a healer, though in those times such a person was often considered a witch.
It was fascinating to read about 16C Italy, with some wonderful descriptions especially of Venice and the various personalities that Fiammetta and Bucino come into contact with. La Draga becomes predictably a very important contact, gaining sympathy from Fiammetta she wheedles her way into their life.
The author has successfully blended fact and fiction with her passion for this particular period of history to tell a story that has some surprise twists along the way. I did guess the outcome, ending but personally felt it was a successful way of bringing the novel to a close.
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