Saturday, March 03, 2007

February 2007: In the Company of the Courtesan

Finding the inspiration to spark creativity is a perpetual challenge that faces many artists. For Sarah Dunant that spark came after a walk through Florence’s Uffizi gallery led her to a painting from legendary Renaissance painter Titian. The book cover of ‘In the Company of the Courtesan" is not just beautiful art that draws you in; it evoked and inspired the book’s central character, Fiametta. “It is the first painting of a woman where the woman is actually looking at you,” Dunant said from her home in London. “Before the Renaissance, the only time you saw women was through religious figures. After that period, suddenly there are all these Venuses on the wall; it was a major change in perspective. But (the look on this woman’s face) says ‘I see that you are looking at me and you’re interested, so let’s carry on a conversation to talk about what you are interested in.’”

Dunant said that she realized that the only woman who would pose for a portrait like this would have to be a courtesan. Like geishas, courtesans are often misunderstood throughout history. Their sexual relationships with men were only a small part of what they were about. They were often well-educated, well-dressed women who were consorts to kings, wealthy businessmen and the elite. “They had some kind of independence but they were not going to be romantic about it,” said Dunant. “You cannot read a lot about women in this period, but one thing we do know is that 500 years ago, it was very, very tough for women.”

Writing the book proved to be a labor of love for Dunant who says she spent nine months burying herself in research in Italy to get the details right. The result is a book where you feel immersed in the sights and smells of 16th century Rome and Venice. “There is a satirist who wrote a whole series of letters that were being published at the time and (I read them) to get into his head,” she said. “But it’s much harder to penetrate the minds and hearts of women (at that time). One realizes they must have been very smart and sharp, but at the same time they had to be quite calculating and shrewd. For that reason I’m not sure if I had written in the first person and in her voice that we would have necessarily liked her. That’s why the book is narrated from the voice of the dwarf. It’s her companion; someone who could admire her and give her applause.”

Dunant said that writing both “The Birth of Venus” and “Courtesan” changed the way she viewed women of the past. “As modern women, we look at how women were treated and how they suffered and we want to write down the injustice of it all,” she said. “But actually I’ve become more interested in how they really did cope and get on with it. I suppose that’s what women do best, we get on with the business of living no matter what the adversity.”

Meet the author
“In the Company of the Courtesan” is CW’s book club selection for February. Join us on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at SouthPark mall. Please R.S.V.P. by visiting,

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