In the Company of the Courtesan: A Novel
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My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.
Thus begins In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant’s epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to become a miracle of east-west trade: rich and rancid, pious and profitable, beautiful and squalid.
With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her.
Yet as their fortunes rise, this perfect partnership comes under threat, from the searing passion of a lover who wants more than his allotted nights to the attentions of an admiring Turk in search of human novelties for his sultan’s court. But Fiammetta and Bucino’s greatest challenge comes from a young crippled woman, a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and hearts with devastating consequences for them all.
A story of desire and deception, sin and religion, loyalty and friendship, In the Company of the Courtesan paints a portrait of one of the world’s greatest cities at its most potent moment in history: It is a picture that remains vivid long after the final page.
From the Hardcover edition.
you gave her a chance. Still…we have more important things to do than argue about La Draga. If we put the pearls and the great ruby together, do we have enough to set ourselves up?” “It depends on what we’re buying,” I say, relieved to be back to business. “For clothes, it’s better than Rome. The Jews running the secondhand market are sharp, and they sell tomorrow’s fashions before today’s are old. Yes”—I put up my hand to stem her objection—“I know how much you hate it, but new clothes are a
goddess wins my argument for me. Behold the power of sculpture: the representation of nature in all of her finest truth. I tell you, Monsignore Vecellio, even in your hands the painter could not capture this.” And he puts out his hand toward the soft curve of her naked shoulder. “Uh-uh. Ne touche pas.” And the room explodes with laughter as the statue moves its lips to address him without altering a muscle of the pose. “The discussion in question, Monsieur Ramellet, is sight versus hearing.
whom, though he would never thank me for it, I had saved from roasting earlier that evening. Outside, the sounds of the city were a ragged chorus from Hell: distant blasts of gunshot mixed in with staccato yelps and howls. Somewhere in the dead of the night, the horror got closer when a man in one of the neighboring houses started screaming: a single, protracted screech of agony followed by moaning and shouting, then another scream, and another, as if someone was chopping off his limbs one by
bedroom and the dawn comes in. It always amazes me how men’s characters change when they are in vino: how the most timid become like bulls, spitting and raging, or how a scourge of princes ends up licking your hand like a half-blind kitten. But it is only the wine talking, and most of them forget it all the day after. “Those are fine thoughts, Aretino,” I say, refilling his glass. “If you wrote them down, she could use them for her tombstone.” He snorts. “I have already written them, God damn
Even now the memory spikes me. “We are lucky. Though everything you see here was once owned by someone else. And no doubt will be again. I think your family would remember our bargaining well enough. How is your father, by the way?” He hesitates. “He died some years ago.” I want to ask him if it was before or after his conversion, but it feels too cruel a question. While it is not unknown for Jews to take on the Christian faith, the only stories I have heard are of young women star-crossed in