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Sarah Dunant

Photo of Sarah Dunant

Photo: © Charlie Hopkinson

About the Author

Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, Sacred Hearts, and Blood and Beauty, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.

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Author Essay

The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Story of the Writing of THE BIRTH OF VENUS

Most novels come from the heart and the head. THE BIRTH OF VENUS began with the heart. January 2000: I am sitting in Florence with my lover: on the table between us, the remains of a bloody steak and our even more bloody relationship. I walk out of the restaurant alone, numb with shock. But even at such a dark moment there is something about Florence — that beauty, that artistic brilliance, the way she wears her history so lightly — that makes the worst of times bearable. That day I decide to buy an apartment there.

Fast forward five months. Now the bank and I (well, the bank mostly) are the proud owners of a two bedroom flat in a 15th century building off Santa Croce Square. I fly to the city for the day to sign the contract. That night my plane is cancelled. I have nothing but my handbag and the key to my new home: inside there is no gas, no electricity, no water, no furniture save for three duvets, bought as a promise to myself and my two daughters that we would live there that we would live there part of the year. I lie in the dim glow of a candle borrowed from a restaurant and stare out at the palazzo opposite, its walls ghostly with frescoes. The sound of drunken Florentine youth bounces off the cobbles into the room. I sweat in the heat and itch in anticipation with the buzz of mosquitoes. The 21st century dissolves around me and I am back in Florence as it might have been 500 years before. The next morning I have the germ of what would become THE BIRTH OF VENUS. I read through a tower of books about the Renaissance. I walk the streets without a map, safe in daylight, lost at night, where the darkness and the labyrinthine streets are a time warp into the past. I begin to understand this pivotal time in history: how wealth encouraged high fashion and new learning, how the de Medici family infused Italy with ancient Rome and Greece, how Plato nudged God aside to make more room for man and how a new art grew into three dimensions with perspective and depth, putting flesh and blood men alongside the one-dimensional saints on church walls. It was a revolution personified by Botticelli’s painting of a naked woman rising from the waves; not Eve or the Virgin Mary, but the beautiful pagan siren, Venus. What was Botticelli thinking when he lifted the brush? What was it like to have lived through it all? That was the novel I was going to write. But where was my story?

My daughters showed me the way. They arrived in the thick heat of summer: the 15-year-old was attitude on a stick — full of will, but fierce and open; ready to deal with anything life threw at her. The nine-year-old was still humble enough to be awed, reveling in the art, tasting the color, feeling the paint. Two bright young girls on the edge of adult life, strong in character, even stronger in their dreams. But where were the young girls of the Renaissance? Everything I had read was about men: men writing, men speaking, most of all, men painting. Yet women were there, as they always have been: smart, shrewd, talented and creative. They may not have been allowed to become apprentices, grinding paints and sleeping under trestle tables of masters until they were ready to work on their own walls, but surely they would have had the yearning, the enthusiasm, the talent and most of all the will?

And so my girls inspired my heroine, 15-year-old, Alessandra Cecchi, a Florentine with talent in her fingers and character in her veins. Her father is a rich cloth merchant, her brother and sisters are children of the Renaissance, all of them living on the cusp of a cultural revolution at its most dramatic moment, when the Medici patronage gave way to the fundamentalism and hell fire of the Monk Savonarola. It was Savonarola who, breathing sulphur from the pulpit, so scared Florence, damning the new learning as pagan and the work of the devil. He built the original “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where the wealthy threw their luxuries on to a great fire and where artists like Botticelli, terrified by images of hell, burned some of their own works. The history of the Renaissance at its most vibrant told through my heroine’s eyes as she walked through the flames of fate into marriage, birth, death and her own whispered conversations with the devil.

By the time THE BIRTH OF VENUS was finished I had a new home and my daughters had the best kind of history lesson ahead of them: a great story built on a scaffold of facts (even thought the younger one may have to wait a little while to understand the philosophy mixed in with the sexuality.)

And last but not least, the moral from this story: the next time your relationship is as bloody as your steak, fall in love with a city rather than another man. Much more productive and creative!

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