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In the Company of the Courtesan - Sarah Dunant

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

I WASN’T at all sure what to expect when I began reading the second of Sarah Dunant’s Italian historical novels, In the Company of the Courtesan. As it turned out, I was both pleasantly surprised and extremely impressed.

Set in sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy, In the Company of the Courtesan is an epic tale of one man’s devotion to his mistress – of Bucino, the dwarf and Fiammetta, a beautiful young woman – the pimp and the courtesan.

Together, and with their stomachs full of jewels (insurance for the future), the unlikely pair escape the sack of Rome and head for glittering, decadent Venice, ‘the most successful commercial city in Christendom’.

There, with the help of La Draga, a young disabled woman with a knowledge of ‘plants and healing’, Fiammetta is restored to health and soon, she and Bucino are back in business.

Yet all is not what it seems and before long, the pair find themselves caught in a web of lies, deceit and betrayal that tests loyalty to the limit and ultimately ends in tragedy.

Written in a first person narrative, events unfold through the eyes of Bucino, a compelling and strangely likeable character who not only draws the reader into the heart of a city of extreme contrasts, but also into the mind of a man tortured by his own inadequacies. Yet at no time are we asked to pity him. Quite the reverse, in fact, although compassion is an altogether different matter.

And because the words are Bucino’s and sex is the underlying theme, In the Company of the Courtesan is sometimes crude yet, oddly, never offensive. How could it be, when for example, a certain anatomical feature is described as ‘shrivelled like a salted slug’. Give you something to think about next time you empty the salt pot over an unsuspecting gastropod…...

However, don’t expect explicit sex – there isn’t any. The one scene witnessed by Bucino is more sensuous that sexual – not ‘the crude excitement of the act….rather the joyful exhaustion that takes over when the body has gorged itself.’

But what makes In the Company of the Courtesan such a fascinating read – quite apart from the intricacies of the plot – is its clever mix of fact and fiction.

For while Bucino and Fiammetta are fictional, other ‘characters’ are not. The painter Tiziano Vecellio is, of course, Titian, who during his long and successful career painted several nudes. These include The Venus of Urbino, a portrait of a woman lying on a bed with a small sleeping dog and two maids in the background. Interestingly, the model is in all probability, a Venetian courtesan.

Likewise the writer Pietro Aretino, who penned religious work and pornography, in particular The Illustrious Sonnets which accompanied the infamous drawing-engravings known as I Posti (The Positions).

Both men lived in Venice at the time In the Company of the Courtesan is set and both the above are cleverly incorporated into the story.

Well written, well researched and a definite page turner, In the Company of the Courtesan is not to be missed.