Book Examines Life of Renaissance Courtesan Author Sarah Dunant reads from her novel, In the Company of the Courtesan and talks about her latest renaissance romp.
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. An early morning bomb attack devasted a major Shiite shrine in Iraq today, spawning reprisal attacks against dozens of Sunni mosques. President Bush has urged restraint among rival religious factions, and pledged American help to restore the revered shrine. And France has denounced the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a young Jewish man in Paris as an anti-semitic crime.

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It's been said that happiness requires a lot more than mere success. You also have to see your friends fail. In that regard, I have to tell you that my friend Sarah Dunant has been a real disappointment. We met in London, where she was a host of the radio show, Woman's Hour, went on to write a series of distressingly good thrillers, and then scored an international success with an historical novel called The Birth of Venus. Now she's back with another Renaissance romp, titled In The Company of the Courtesan. It's about a high- class prostitute named Fiammetta, and her partner and pimp, a dwarf named Bucino. The book opens with the sack of Rome in 1527, and follows our heroes as they struggle to reestablish their business in the magnificent city of Venice.

Sarah Dunant joins us here in Studio 3A, and I'm going to ask you, I'd read a passage from this book for us, but first I have to say, I hate you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SARAH DUNANT (Author): But when I first met you, Neal, you were the voice of the nation coming into America from London, and so I hated you just a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Back to Fiammetta. She was born in Venice, but taken as a girl to Rome by her mother, who trained her in the world's oldest profession. Would you read that passage I've asked you, marked out for you?

Ms. DUNANT: I certainly will.

Ms. DUNANT: (Reading) In those days, Rome was the natural home of the courtesan. Indeed, it had been their very birthplace. A city full of sophisticated clerics too secular to be saints, especially when it came to matters of the flesh, had soon enough created its own court with women as refined out of bed, as they were wayward within it. Such was their appetite for beauty, that any girl with a wit and intelligence to match her looks, and a mother willing to procure for her, could make a small fortune while her looks lasted.

CONAN: If you have questions for Sarah Dunant about the place of women in Renaissance Italy, about the cosmopolitan city of Venice in the 16th century, about her research or novel wiring, our number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email:

And Sarah, let me ask you about research for a minute. There's a terrific scene, Fiammetta has arrived in Venice, and goes to church on a Sunday morning to check out both the market and the competition. Business is conducted by glances and subtle shifts of clothing. How do you find out stuff like that?

Ms. DUNANT: You do a lot of reading. I probably spend about a year in libraries before I ever go to the keyboard on a novel like this. And what you do is, one book, which is telling you a broad history of the city, makes a remark that perhaps a law came in in 1538 where courtesans, and I remember this moment, courtesans were no longer allowed to pray in church when decent women were praying there. And as a result of that, you go to a footnote, which is an article written in a magazine that has studied this particular moment in culture and that, and you're like an archeologist, Neal.

You like, dig and you dig and you dig, further and further, to get to the kind of nuggets, and the kind of bits of pottery inside. And thus, I did, indeed, find that one of the places, particularly in Venice, where respectable, wealthy women were not allowed out on the streets. When you look at Venetian art, and you see public spectacles, all the top windows of the buildings have women looking out like little flocks of starlings, because they're not allowed out into the streets. In a place where women couldn't go to the streets, how did courtesans, these beautiful, rich-looking women, find their clients? Because on the streets, they would have looked like prostitutes.

Well, everybody goes to church. So, it's at church when the walk in, and with a series of signals and dress and whatever, as I describe in the book, that the right men looking for the right women can find each other, without a single word being said, initially.

CONAN: With the aid of a truly boring sermon.

Ms. DUNANT: Yes. Yes, well, as I say in the book, if the sermon is short and sharp and full of hell, then all you're thinking about is how badly you'd do if there was sin. But if the sermon is somebody who talks endlessly, because they like their own sound of their own voice, and they're doing an analysis of a little piece of the gospel, you're so bored that you just zone out. And sermons could last for a couple of hours during this period of time. You can do a lot of looking around you and finding the right person in that period of time.

CONAN: And the profession itself, as you've just pointed out in that passage, one of the very few available for women in those times.

Ms. DUNANT: One of the very few, particularly for women who were not of noble birth, you know. Needless to say, either in Venice or in Rome, could these men sleep with women from good families. Because women from good families, the minute they menstruated, were married off, you know. Keep that sexual tension off.

CONAN: Or shipped off to the convent.

Ms. DUNANT: Or shipped off to the convent, yes, absolutely. So, its only women of lesser birth who don't expect to be looked after or married. They expect to be kept in the manner to which the nobles are accustomed. I mean, courtesans lived in very rich houses. They always ended up in poverty, because everything was just loaned or rented out, and as soon as the money stopped, they couldn't live like that. But they lived in rich houses, so as nobles felt a little bit as if they were coming into their mother's house, or their sister's house, you know.

In Venice, not only did the women get shipped up to the convent, but young men were kept as bachelors, so the family fortunes didn't diminish. Now, these young men wanted to go to a house that looked like their mothers, they wanted to have a banquet, they wanted to discuss Petrarch, they wanted to talk philosophy, they wanted to hear somebody play the lute, in a certain point they wanted them to put down the lute and go into the bedroom with them, and not ask any questions afterwards.

So, courtesans absolutely fitted, and for those ten, fifteen years when their looks and their wit held, they could make a lot of money, which they hardly ever had when they finally died.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. We'll turn to Jody. Jody's calling us from Las Vegas.

JODY (Caller): Hi.



JODY: I have a very interesting question. I've read a few books on courtesans recently, and I've always, they never really touched on the subject of pregnancy, and how they avoided it.

Ms. DUNANT: Yes. Well, I can tell you, that in the research for this, Jody, I came across a figure called Vladi Draggia(ph), who is actually in the book. And she's a healer. This is a time, of course, before professional medicine takes over, which was mostly male. And she has a cordial, called the Courtesan's Cordial, which is made up from Holy Water. Now, that would be the bit that would give you the magic ingredient. And also, pulped mare's kidney.

Now, I don't know how well you know what the makeup of the contraceptive pill is, but some of it is estrogen, and estrogen is found in mare's urine, naturally. So, there were clearly things that they knew about, not because they knew it was estrogen, obviously, but just because they'd had enough empirical research to see that if you took this, and you needed to have menstruation and you hadn't had your period, you got it. So, there were obviously things that they did do.

The other thing they did, of course, is they did get pregnant, and they did have children. And quite often, because this was such a kind of relaxed society about sin in many ways, the Catholic church, the whole society is rather corrupt here, it's around the time of the Reformation. But nobles would gladly pay for their illegitimate sons and daughters to be brought up.

The Pope has mistresses, the Pope has children. Lucretia Borgia and Cesare Borgia were given, either Bishop bricks in the case of the son, or married into the nobility.

So, you could have your children, actually. They wouldn't ever get your name, but they would get a little bit of your fortune.

CONAN: You solve it in the book with a little Deus ex Machina. She's unable to conceive.

Ms. DUNANT: Yes. Yes. Well, that's partly because of something that happens at the end of the book that I wanted to bring a child in with, but yes. Yeah, and also, of course, the other great risk for them was syphilis, because it is just about this time that syphilis starts. It starts as something called the French Boils, in the town of Naples in the end of the 15th Century. And the French soldiers bring it with them, and as they're tramping through Italy, they infect everybody en route.

So, actually, one of the things that my dwarf narrator does, is he keeps an eye open for obviously damaged people coming to be clients. You know, as he says, you can't always spot it in its early stages, but you can certainly spot it later. And you only let in the clean, if you can get away with it.

CONAN: Jody, thanks very much for the all.

JODY: Thank you.

CONAN: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. Again, the email address is

And there is not only one profession described in this book. There is a great deal about painting. Now, you're previous book, The Birth of Venus, was, in fact, about a sort of a woman painter of that era. Not too, about the same time. This, you have one of the characters in your book is Titian, the great painter, who's in Venice, and, in a way, your first book was the birth of Venus, and in a way this book is the birth of the Venus of Urbino.

Ms. DUNANT: Yes, it's a difficult one, this, actually. Because I can see, and people do go, oh, it's another historical novel about a really famous painting, and a bit of me wants to say, do you know what? In order to understand anything about the past this far back, the place you have to go to find out about it is paintings, because the paintings are like social documentaries.

You know, if you spend three hours in the Academia in Venice, you'll learn more about what Venice looked like, than by imagination, smelled like and felt like to live in. Because the painters were the documentary makers. That's what they do, they show you what the world was like then.

Now, this particular painting, which is on the cover of the book, actually, and she looks rather decent on the cover of the book, it's just her face, is a very famous painting, and it's a painting...

CONAN: Wait, wait, wait, you skipped the centerfold.

Ms. DUNANT: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. She's a playboy. She's a lead pinup. She is a young, beautiful woman lying on a bed, naked. But she's famous for one reason; Titian paints her in Venice in the 1530's, which is, up until then, throughout the Renaissance, there have been naked women painted, they have been Venuses, they have been beautiful, but they have never been looking directly at you. They've always been asleep, or they've been looking at themselves in a mirror, or coyly looking away. So, the kind of shock value of a woman without clothes on starring back at you, almost as if in invitation, has never happened before. This woman is looking directly at you.

And she's in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and when I was writing The Birth of Venus, I used to pass by her after I'd been to the Botticelli's, which was what I was working on, and think, who are you?

And when I started researching her, of course, the fact is, when Titian paints her in Venice, she couldn't be a known woman. She would've been actually disgraced, because clearly, she's recognizable. And if you now read Titian's letters, it's pretty certain she was a courtesan.

And of course, once she's a courtesan, you look at this look, which is kind of going, you want to talk about it? You got something to offer me? And you suddenly think, ah, yes, well you have some power here, lady, don't you? And I thought, this isn't just a painting, this is a novel. Now having said that, the scene where she actually sits for the painting is like three pages long.

CONAN: Tiny.

Ms. DUNANT: It's tiny, tiny, tiny. It's just there in order to explain it. But the paintings are the stuff of the culture. It's like advertisements are now. You know, if you were to read advertisements, you'd learn a lot of about being in 21st Century America. If I read the paintings in 16th century Venice, I can tell you a great deal about life there.

CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Dunant about her new novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's get another listener on the line. Lynn joins us, Lynn calling from Traverse City, in Michigan.

LYNN (Caller): Oh, hello.

Ms. DUNANT: Hi, Lynn.

LYNN: Thank you for taking my call. Right now, I'm reading The Birth of Venus, and I've been wondering, how much should we already know about the historical context? I keep wondering if these dates are supposed to be significant to me or not?

Ms. DUNANT: You know, it's a really good question. The short answer is, I don't expect you to know anything. This history is a long time ago. Now, there are, within it, really interesting things that I think we should be thinking about now. In The Birth of Venus, there's a rise of a fundamentalist preacher called Savanorolla, who, if I had written him to talk about contemporary life, you would've think I had made him up, but he actually existed. But I know they're a long time ago, and in a sense, it's a voyage of discovery. Having said that, of course, I have to know my dates. I have to get everything right for you.

Somebody once said to me, after they finished The Birth of Venus, that they really thought it was a good story, and actually, now, they knew a lot about the Renaissance, but it wasn't because they felt anybody had told them it. And if you like, that's the balancing act that I'm trying to do. I'm trying to create a good story that makes you want to read the book, and along with following the story, because you need to get to the end, kind of almost painlessly, you'll learn something about what it was like to live in that extraordinary time in the Renaissance in Florence.

But never because I went, sit down, listen to this and then repeat it after me. And that, I think, when historical novels work, is because they try to and both things. But I don't know. Maybe you're telling me it's too much information.

LYNN: Well, thank you.

Ms. DUNANT: You're welcome.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Lynn.

I kept waiting for a lot of this, the courtesan book involves relations between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, what's modern Turkey...

Ms. DUNANT: Yeah.

CONAN: terms of their great trade rivals. I keep waiting for the battle of Le Panto, and it doesn't happen. My dates must be wrong.

Ms. DUNANT: Yes. No, that comes later, of course, I can now immediately say to you it's 1571, the Battle of Le Panto, because I know that. But, actually, I was interested, because before I came on the air and was listening to you talk, you were reading the news, and you were talking about the attack on the young Jew in France. And I was thinking that, you know, you go back to Venice in the 16th Century, and actually, one of the great things about this city in its prime is that it's remarkably multi-cultural, actually.

You know, the Jews, who elsewhere are treated appallingly during this period in Europe, actually are given the right to stay and live in Venice. It's not great. They have their own ghetto, but they negotiate with the state, and they have the right to live there and practice. For the simple reason, of course, is that they lend money.

This is the Merchant of Venice in its earliest stage. And Venice is a commercial empire, and she needs to borrow money to fund her ventures. But also, Venice is a big trading city, although there's been a reformation, she needs to trade with Protestants. Even though they hate each other, the Protestants and the Catholics trade with each other.

She's at war with Turkey for the empire, you know, the Saracen-Islam-Christianity block is already fighting with each other. But Turks come all the time to trade in Venice. And the illegitimate son of the Doge(ph) lives in Constantinople, and flogs stuff from Venice to the Sultan there.

So, it's the fact that although there are lots of religious tensions going on, and lots of racial tensions, as so often happens at certain moments in our time, trading cities, where the economy is really important, allows them to be buried in some ways. Now, I think we have quite a lot to learn from that in a certain way, now.

It's not that I looked for it, Neal, when I was writing the book. It wasn't, when I found it, I thought, oh, how interesting. This is quite a modern thing to be looking at. And once again, a bit like the balancing act. I think if you start to write a historical novel, saying, this is really the present, and this is what you have to learn from it, you'll probably not write a good book. If, in writing it, you discover something that looks strikingly interesting and modern, then you can bring it up.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. DeAnn. DeAnn is calling from Berkeley, California. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.

DEANN (Caller): You are pronouncing my name exactly, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead.

DEANN: I have a question. There's a long literary tradition of beautiful women, and their odd-looking procures. Your novel, ma'am, and Thornton Wilder's, Bridge of San Luis Rey, at least? So, I was wondering if you could comment on why there is this contrast between beauty and the beast, and why it's so attractive to our imagination.

Ms. DUNANT: Oh, God, what a big question!

CONAN: And you've got a minute and 30 seconds.

Ms. DUNANT: Okay, very quickly. I think of course, as Bucino, my dwarf, says very happily, "I make her look even more beautiful. My ugliness shows her off perfectly, which makes us the perfect couple together," okay?

The second thing, which is maybe even more important, is that Bucino, my dwarf, who narrates her, and is her best friend, is not her lover. There is not sexuality between them. They are partners. And that gives them, in some ways, a deeper relationship than her and a million young lovers who see her as beautiful, and come in and want to go to bed with her.

And I think beauty and the beast, beauty, in its own way, is a bit of a burden, because people don't treat you normally when you are extremely beautiful. Ugliness is a bit of a burden. People don't treat you normally when you're very ugly. Between the two, there can be, I think, a very powerful friendship and relationship. Almost deeper, because they're both marginal and outsiders in their own way, although they come from opposites. Will that do?

CONAN: It's going to have to do. DeAnn, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DEANN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Sarah Dunant, we wish you a lot of sleep, you're about to start a ten-city tour?

Ms. DUNANT: Yes, I'm going to be a doormouse when I'm not talking.

CONAN: Good luck.

Ms. DUNANT: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Sarah Dunant is the author, most recently, of In the Company of the Courtesan. She joined us here in Studio 3-A.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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