In The Company of the Courtesan


Sarah Dunant


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

January 20, 2007

enjoy well written historical novels, and this book falls in that category. In the Company of the Courtesan is set in Italy during the Renaissance, and it is indeed well written. It is the story of a beautiful young prostitute Fiammetta and her partner, a dwarf named Bucino. We first meet the pair in Rome, where Fiammetta has a successful practice servicing the rich and famous. Unfortunately, Rome is sacked by an invading army of Spanish and Germans. The defense fails, the victorious troops pour in. The soldiers rape and pillage; atrocities are abundant. Eventually Fiammetta and Bucino escape with nothing more than a few jewels that they have hidden by swallowing. Our heroes make their way to Venice, hoping to re-establish Fiammetta’s business. Unfortunately, Fiammetta did not escape from Rome unscarred, and nobody wants a blemished courtesan.

Much of this story deals with Bucino’s and Fiammetta’s schemes to return her to her former beauty so that she can lure the wealthy men of Venice to her bed. They hire a competent but creepy healer named La Draga to help disguise Fiammetta’s injuries. La Draga is an interesting character: she is blind, her eyes show no iris, just a filmy white color everywhere - but nonetheless La Draga has an uncanny ability to make statements that a sighted person might miss. La Draga and Bucino are constantly at odds; Bucino feels he must protect Fiammetta from frauds or extravagance. The wealth from their swallowed jewels must propel Fiammetta back into business, or else they will be reduced to poverty.

There isn’t any question about whether prostitution is right or wrong - Fiammetta and Bucino are out for survival, they don’t have the luxury of morality. Besides, this is one of the most corrupt eras in the history of the church - there is a chapter where Fiammetta and Bucino set out to scout the competition - which in Venice means going to church, because all the available young women put themselves on display at the church service.

Venice is well portrayed. There are stinking canals and glorious villas. The wealthy enjoy perhaps the best standard of living in all of Europe, it is the trading center of the continent. There are saintly festivals. One of the big entertainments is watching various groups of day laborers battle for the right to possess a bridge - the fisherman will engage in fisticuffs with the masons. Violent battles ensue between the groups, resulting injury and death, for nothing more than bragging rights on the bridge.

Bucino meets various characters - a Jewish pawnbroker, who gives them cash for their few jewels, a Turkish merchant who tries to lure Bucino to the Ottoman empire to see the wonders of Constantinople, the famous painter Titan (the cover of the book is a Titan painting. In this story, Durant has Fiammetta pose as Titan's model for the painting.) and Artino, a scandal monger that knew Fiammetta in Rome, but who has also escaped to Venice following Rome’s fall. Artino could ruin Bucino and Fiammetta, and he is a man with sarcastic wit and a temper who had disputes with them back in Rome.

Durant does a terrific job at describing Venice without boring us with info-dumps. The story slows a bit after Bucino and Fiammetta re-estabish themselves, but at the end it picks up when Bucino uncovers an incredible secret. I liked this book, now I will have to seek out The Birth of Venus, another novel which Durant wrote about Florence in the Rennaisance.