# Publisher: Random House (February 14, 2006)
# Subject: Historical - General
Almost every culture has them. In India, they are known as known as "Tawaifs", in Japan they are "Geishas" and in Europe they were known as "Courtesans". According to Wikipedia, a courtesan is a person paid and/or supported for the giving of social companionship and intimate liaisons to one or more partners.
In 16th-century Rome where the novel opens, a deliciously corrupt Catholic Church was in power in the Vatican. The members of the church had all taken the mandatory vows of celibacy but it didn't stop them from wanting children in order to further their political ambitions. They, ofcourse, could not take wives and nor would it be proper for them to be seen in back alleys with a common prostitute. They wanted a woman proficient in the art of conversation, poetry, dance, literature and painting, who would sleep with them and not demand marriage and thus, the courtesan was born.
25-year old Fiammeta Biancini a famous and much sought after courtesan in Rome is one of the three protagonists of Sarah Dunant's new novel "In the Company of a Courtesan" . When the novel opens, Rome is being plundered by the severe and dour Luther protestants and Fiametta has to escape to Venice with just the clothes on her back to build a new life there and to remake her fortune. She takes only one very trusted servant with her, an ugly dwarf (courtesans were well-known for having exotic side-kicks) named, Bucino.
We readers are treated to Bucino's perspective of their story which I think is brilliant idea on the author's part. Courtesans tended to be vain, self-absorbed, tough-as-nails young women and all these rather unflattering qualities may have shown up had the story been told from Fiametta's perspective. Bucino, on the other hand, is a lovable, delightful, witty and sharp creature. Although he was devoted to Fiametta he was able to see both her faults and her strengths, also, being the servant, he was less conspicious on the roads of Venice - he was able to go places and see and hear things, something that Fiametta may never have been able to do.
The third protagonist of the novel and probably the best-loved by the author since she devotes so much space to it in her novel, is the city of Venice. There is enough descriptive material in there to write a whole non-fiction book on Venice in the 16th-century. But again, Venice is a good choice for the setting of the novel because although it was the epitome of Christianity in Italy at that time, it was also a big trading port and hence, highly multicultural, allowing the author to pack her book with diverse characters, including a Turkish aristocrat, Jewish merchants, a suspected witch named La Draga and so on. Real historical figures also show up in the book with Titian, the famous artist, in a cameo role and the writer Pietro Aretino who also lived in Venice at that time.
I do applaud the author for resisting the urge to write a paen to Venice and its canals as most writers of historical fiction are want to do. Instead, she presents it to us just as it might have appeared in the 16th century - stinky roads, busy, crowded marketplaces, unscrupulous vendors, mystical healers, witches, whores and so on...
In true Sarah Dunant style, there are lots of twists, turns and plots to the story, but I will desist from letting on anything that happens in the book because I am aware that several readers of this blog are hoping to read the book. In closing I will say that "In The Company of a Courtesan" is a fitting successor to "The Birth of Venus".