I know, I know... It's been WAY too long since my last post, but sometimes life distracts you. However, I did manage to read a FABULOUS book over the past week (Thanks to my mom, who sent it to me in a care package.), and I am delighted to be able to share it with you now. What do they always say... better late than never?
Anyway, I was walking to the bus in downtown Chicago yesterday, near the Clark and Division El stop, heading towards my dentist appointment, when an overwhelming feeling of grime hit me. The entire city felt grimy: the weather was grimy, the air was grimy, the streets were thoroughly grimy and the people were even grimy. I felt instantly dirty the minute I ascended from the El station. (Not that I hadn't felt dirty on the El as well, but I usually feel an immense sense of relief once outside. Yesterday I didn't.) I had spent the weekend at my roommate's parents' homes in Woodstock, Ill., so the contrast between the fresh country air there and the dull city air here was stark. However, the entire mood reminded me instantly of the book I had just finished reading, one that had transported me to late 15th century Florence, where the streets are also grimy.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is a novel, but it beautifully combines the history of Florence during the Renaissance with the story of young and vibrant Alessandra Cecchi's life. (Yes, I did automatically feel connected to this heroine because, well, we do share the same name.) Alessandra is coming of age during a conflicting time in Italy's history: art is flourishing, yet the Roman Catholic church is desperately trying to fight what it considers to be an increase in sin and debauchery. True, Florence is full of a seedy dark underbelly, in which murder, sodomy (a word that appears frequently in this book) and prostitution reign. Alessandra, while an extremely pious girl, is inherently drawn towards the art world, her fingers itching to paint despite the fact that it is forbidden for ladies to pursue a career in the arts.
However, with the help of her bold yet loving African attendant and best friend, Alessandra is able to draw in secret. When a young and mysterious artist is hired by her father to paint the family chapel, Alessandra feels a window of opportunity may be opening for her, yet her entire world is thrown apart with the French invasion of Florence. She chooses the fate of marriage over confinement to a convent, and she finds married to a man who, while kind, has a secret darker than she can ever imagine. While the fight between the corrupt members of the church and the Medici supporters wages in the streets, Alessandra fights her own battle within... And she cannot seem to forget the cat eyes of the painter, staring into her soul like no other has before.
The Birth of Venus is full of history, intrigue, mystery, art and, of course, a little romance. However, the main focus of this novel is the role women played in Renaissance art and what impact they could have had had they been able to pursue their passions openly. Alessandra is a wonderful narrarator and heroine, and her character is one that will surely stick with me for some time to come, as will this story.