Published on November 12, 2007
The story starts in 1527, when "Italy was a living chessboard for the ambitions of half of Europe" even though "the threat of war was as regular as the harvest". When people have grown soft wallowing in riches and the church is riddled with corruption, cashing in on the unholiest of alliances.
But, it doesn't take too long before terror strikes - the German Lutherans, "fuelled on the juices of the nuns they had raped on their journey south" tear through the glorious city that is Rome.
Luckily though, two devious citizens escape and make their way to a Venice at the height of her splendour, shimmering in the beautiful light of the Renaissance.
Scalded by the fiery asceticism of Luther's men, the courtesan Fiametta Bianchi and her dwarf companion Bucino Teobaldi hope to dip their fingers in the honey pot that is Venice and rebuild their lives, becoming as rich and formidable as they were in Rome.
With the help of a blind and deformed healer, La Draga, Bianchi is restored to her astoundingly magnificent self, ready to charm the "pants off" every moneyed gentleman in the city. And under the calculating eye of Teobaldi, she does just that - consorting with a famous painter, an influential Turk, an infamous man of letters and powerful bureaucrats in the city.
Through the eyes of Teobaldi the dwarf, readers are taken on a tour through "gluttony, vanity, envy and avarice" - the sins that made Venice the capital of ostentation in the 1500s. We are also ushered through its underbelly, where the watery dreamscape "shifts closer to nightmare" with black swerving canals, bones and witchcraft.
Sarah Dunant, a journalist by profession, embroiders a lovely tapestry of the city, describing the majesty of its architecture, the bawdy revelry of festivals and the splendour of the art, all edged with the crudeness of Teobaldi's tongue. Though Dunant does a great job depicting the period, insinuating pertinent subjects like women's desire for autonomy versus their economic dependence on men, the wars between states, the rising power of the doges, religion and superstition, and the persecution of the unexplained, the themes she weaves remain unfinished and unsatisfying. Despite this, with her descriptive powers she still managed to transport this 21st-century reader to the Renaissance age - no mean feat.