Sarah Dunant is intoxicated with the past – the Renaissance specifically. The British writer who began her career in broadcasting at the BBC and writing crime thrillers, is so beguiling that anyone who thinks history is boring, must go and hear her speak at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest. You’ll never look at 16th century history and art in the same way again!
She has written four seductive international bestsellers translated into 30 languages, set in the turbulent Renaissance: The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, Sacred Hearts, and most recently Blood and Beauty about the infamous Borgias. ( A family, she feels, that has been much maligned by history.)
In her second novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, characters come to life in the Venice Jewish Ghetto, a timely subject, as the historical tourism landmark is about to receive a much-needed facelift from the American fashion designer, Diane von Furstenburg, who founded the Venetian Heritage Council. She has pledged $12 million to restore the crumbling Ghetto with its five synagogues and Jewish Museum back to its rich cultural heritage, in celebration of its 500th anniversary in 2016.
“If you go into the past, the world is beset by fanaticism and sadly, as we all know, not a lot has changed,” says Dunant by Skype from her home in London.
“When I was researching In the Company of the Courtesan it was all about power and control by the Church,” explains Dunant. “ Women and the Jews had extremely restrictive and confined lives at that time and were forced into roles they didn’t want to play.”
The word geto, comes from the Venetian Italian and the Ghetto Nuovo was established by the Republic of Venice to keep Jews away from the center of society. (It was the first case of officially organized segregation based on religion in Europe.) By 1492 any Spanish and Portugese Jews who had escaped the Inquisition, settled in Venice. They were forced to pay heavy taxes, wear yellow badges and hats and were confined to the Ghetto after dark. But even with all these restrictions, the Jews of Venice flourished.
“The Catholic Church was against usury, considering it a mortal sin and Jews were only allowed certain professions, like doctors, merchants, rag traders, moneylenders and pawnbrokers, “ explains Dunant. So when my character, Fiammetta Bianchini, a high-class courtesan, flees the sack of Rome, (first swallowing her jewels,) with business partner, Bucino a dwarf, and they arrive in Venice and the stones come out, she needs both a pawnbroker and beautiful clothes to wear. Bucino knows that the Ghetto will provide both. ”
Dunant was trained as an historian at Cambridge, “where the romance of history is actually drummed out of you,” she laughs. But academia developed her skills as a voracious researcher which she has applied in spades when writing her novels.
“Many years ago, I first went to Florence to sort out a personal crisis in my own life,“ admits Dunant. “When I brought my daughters, then 10 and 13 to show them the city, my 13-year old said ‘Mum, I don’t do culture, I just do shopping.’ ” Well no wonder she was bored because I realized that all around me was the history of dead white men and all from a man’s perspective and that’s when I started to wonder – what would it be like if I was a woman 500 hundred years ago?
Now living half the year in London and the other in her flat in Florence, Dunant says “It’s the duty of the writer to tell the truth. Everything is based on historical fact but it’s only by imagining inhabiting their skins, that I’m able to conjur their characters.”
Sarah Dunant appears at the Vancouver Writers Fest, October 21 ‘Intoxicated With the Past’ and ‘Getting Under Their Skins’, October 25th ‘
TOP PHOTO: Historical fiction author, Sarah Dunant fell in love with the painting Venus of Urbino by Titian when she saw it at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and knew immediately that the courtesan in the painting would be her inspiration for In the Company of the Courtesan. Photo of Sarah Dunant: Charlie Hopkinson