It's difficult to know with whom to begin - I've read so many good writers this last year. I believe I'll start with one whose books remain more closely in my memory than most. Sarah Dunant's books about the lives of three different young Italian women during the Renaissance fairly throb with the tension, repression and creative energy of an era which produced the likes of Da Vinci, Boticelli, Caravagio, Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, Bocaccio, the Medicis, Savanrola and the Borgias. The names themselves conjure up opulence, brilliance, depravity, cruelty and upheaval swathed in the golden hue of Italian sunlight.
In the 15th Century young noblewomen of marriagable age - sixteen in the case of Serafina around whom Sacred Hearts revolves - had two possible futures before them. They could marry a man chosen for them by their family or they could be sent to a convent. If they were not the pretty one or the dutiful one, but rebellious or too smart or one of too many sisters then they were literally sold to a convent with a bride's dowry. Therefore, they became "brides of Christ."
Serafina was sold away in this manner when she had become too fond of an artist who painted a chapel on her father's premises. She came to the walls of convent Santa Caterina into the care of Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress. Serafina raged and rebelled against her incarceration, throwing the peace of the convent into disorder and distress. This engaging and passionate young woman's story along with the story of the women who resided with her in Santa Caterina are thrown up against the turmoil of the Roman Catholic Church set on the brink of its own repression and rebellion.
In The Birth of Venus Alessa Cecchi isn't even fifteen when she is married off to a wealthy, older man of Florence. Alessa is a bright young woman who has a love for both learning and sketching. The story follows her through her particular passionate journey during the reign of the de Medicis in northern Italy. A time when the lifestyle of luxury, learning and brilliant art is threatened by the hellfire propounded by Savanarola. Alessa finds her very life and her passion for art at risk.
I mentioned earlier the sunlight of Italy. I've often wondered if possibly it was the sunlight, that particular angle upon the hills, fields, vineyards and seaports that nutures the passion that helps manifest such talented artists. I don't know. But I do know that when I visited Venice (way back in the middle 1960's when I was a young girl of sixteen) I didn't just see the sunlight, I felt it. I don't mean the warmth, I felt something else. It's aura? It's energy? I'm not sure what it is, but I felt it. I've never been anywhere else where the sunlight took on such a presence in itself.
I mention this because the third book of Dunant's that I read, In the Company of the Courtesan, is set in Venice. This Venice of the mid-sixteenth century was full of mystery, secrets and paradoxes. Great beauty and great ugliness, the powerful and the disempowered live cheek by jowl amidst a city steeped (quite literally) in its own unique history.
The Courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, flee the sack of Rome to rebuild their enterprise in Venice. Together they navigate Venetian society to acquire the wealthy and notable patrons to support her. But it becomes a harrowing and painful learning experience for them both.
Bucino has become one of my favorite characters of late. Sharp-tongued, very intelligent and wise in what we would call "street smarts," I found myself more engaged in his story than Fiammetta's. He reminds me of George R.R. Martin's character Tyrion in the Song of Ice and Fire books.
Overall, I was totally drawn into the atmosphere of the Renaissance in all three books. Without a doubt Dunant has researched the era well, but craft of her words, a sort of polite lyrical quality that serves the era well, had me compelled to turn the page - like I wanted to know what the next stanza of the song would bring.
I recommend all three books to those interested in historical fiction and the Renaissance in particular.
Dunant's next book, Blood and Beauty, about the notorious Borgia family will be out in July of 2012.
Judith Merkle Riley's Margaret Ashbury novels
Robin Hobb's Rain Wild Chronicles and
Jane Lindskold's Thirteen Orphans books