1:04 pm
Mon June 14, 2004

The Birth of Venus

This week Nicki shares a little fairy tale.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Nicki's commentary.]

There once was a country that was known far and wide for its wealth and its prosperity. It was a place equally famous for its artistic accomplishments and its scientific discoveries. It?s influence was felt far beyond its borders and when powerful men of the country spoke, other nations listened. Everyone who lived there were proud to be citizens of such a fine and mighty place.

Of course, not all was well in this country. The prosperity was mostly enjoyed by a few wealthy businessmen?the common folk were very poor. And some said that the artists of the country created things that looked less like art and more like..well, something immoral. But worst of all, the prosperity went to the heads of the younger generations, who wasted their time and money on trivial and pleasurable pursuits, rather than in any serious and worthwhile occupation. Some called them an apathetic and even sinful generation.

Then one day the country discovered that it was under attack from enemies outside its borders. The citizens were angry and frightened. They raised an army and prepared for war, and they called for a return to more traditional values in their society. The politicians suddenly became very pious. Artists learned that they needed to be more circumspect in their creations. Scientists learned to be careful of how they presented their theories. And the youth, well they still sought their pleasures, but they did so now secretly, for fear of being condemned.

Recognize the story? Actually, this is not a modern political fable, but a fairly accurate description of the city of Florence at the height of the Renaissance, as it was experienced by a young and intelligent merchant?s daughter with artistic aspirations. It is the Florence caught between the death of Leonardo Da Vinci and the rise of Michelangelo, and it is beautifully represented in novel The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant.

Alessandra is the merchant?s daughter who narrates this complex and inviting tale. She is the youngest and smartest child of a cloth merchant who has come up in society under the reign of the Medici?s. She has been blessed (or cursed) with a talent for drawing that she is not allowed to indulge?for although Florence is a very permissive city if you happen to be a talented or beautiful young man, things are not so simple for respectable girls. When her father brings an artist into the home to paint the family chapel, Allessandra finds herself drawn to his vivid pictures. She begs him to teach her, but their meetings must take place secretly, away from the watchful eyes of her father and elder brother?both of whom know that her true worth lies in whatever marriage they can arrange for her. Is it any wonder that love and art become inextricably entwined in her mind.

While Allessandra struggles to learn a forbidden art, Florence itself struggles with the political machinations of the era. A neighboring principality is marching against it. A fanatic monk named Savonarola is gaining followers throughout city. Anyone with something to lose is starting to renounce their former liberalism, lest they be declared traitors and arrested. When Allessandra is married (at the age of fourteen, with both eyes open) to a suitable nobleman with good connections and an excellent bank account, she finds that her new freedom and her husband?s position are under threat from Savaronola?s factions. And yet, she still feels a burning desire to draw?to create something permanent and beautiful in a world grown ever more chaotic and ugly.

Her fight for her family?s survival, for her own artistic freedom, and for her own integrity as a woman in love, makes The Birth of Venus a rich and evocative coming of age story. But it is a story with as many levels to it as there are layers of paint on the Mona Lisa. There are lessons to be learned here?not just for Allessandra, but for her artist, her family and the city of Florence. And there are more than a few lessons for us as well.