Sarah Dunant plunders the past with exquisite detail, sorting through the fifteenth century for the finest jewels of nuance and intricacy. She inhabits the blooming young Alessandra Cecchi with the enthusiasm found in the yet untested, when innocence is flawless and the serpent sill sleeping in the garden. But such purity of heart is fleeting in pre-Savonarola Florence, where curiosity thrives.
The city is ripe with its own beauty in the worship of God as painters enjoy a period of artistic freedom that serves to stimulate genius; paintings and frescoes adorn ceilings, walls and villas. The world of Florence is alight with creation. It is a difficult time to be an intelligent, vibrant young woman stimulated by the lush art and the luxury of the Medici court.
Certainly Alessandra cherishes her own dreams of becoming an artist, especially when her father, a wealthy cloth merchant, brings a young painter into the household to paint the family chapel. Fascinated, Alessandra is drawn to the mysterious painter, her romantic fantasies mixed with the intoxicating smell of paint. But Alessandra is restricted by family obligation, born to honor whatever marriage her father arranges, adding to the family position in the city. Whatever her dreams, they must remain secret.
The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici portends the meteoric rise of the monk Savonarola, a man contemptuous of the corruption he sees in Florence and determined to wrest Satan from the corrupt heart of the city. The Church is clothed in dichotomy, long wallowing in excess, suddenly thrown into turmoil by the monk’s intimate visions of hell. Concupiscence and luxury have long defined the faithful, now humbled and fearful of the ranting of an ascetic whose power spreads like a cancer throughout the city. But the devil is in the details: with the advent of the Inquisition, no stone is left unturned, exposing fornication and lust to the ultimate wrath of God’s judgment, decrying “the power of art to undermine the purity of faith.”
In response to such rapidly changing circumstances, Alessandra marries an older man, as much for his sake as for her own, as the city turns upon itself, searching out sinners, fornicators and sodomites. Her husband allows the freedom she desires, although her beloved city has shriveled into a bland shadow of its former self.
Savonarola transforms the intellectual and artistic grandeur of Florence into The New Jerusalem, where women are subservient to their husbands, defiled by their very nature with the decadence of Eve. As the face of Florence is changed from beauty to self-effacing dullness, the Borgia Pope excels in flaunting excess, and the two men of God prepare for a struggle of Biblical proportions. The now-pious Florentines are caught in the middle, struck by drought in their fields, the “French disease” and a recurrence of the Plague, tested on all sides. The monk arranges for a “Bonfire of the Vanities,” a paean to the Lord’s mercy and an opportunity for the greedy to divest themselves of their ostentatious goods. The gauntlet is thrown before the Pope, although the monk’s monumental hubris has begun to erode his power over a captive audience, one that has grown weary of trials, torture and sacrifice.
It is left to Alessandra to search her soul and determine the course of her life. Marriage has awakened her to reality as her childish world disappears along with its foolish pretensions, replaced by the yearnings of a woman with the soul of an artist. In these tumultuous times, this extraordinary young woman discovers the true meaning of love, the nature of seduction and the pursuit of the spiritual life. Alessandra lives in a world within a world, one where her secrets are protected. Alessandra is privy to the erotic world of womanhood, where she keeps her own counsel, nourished by her inner life, a true child of the Florence of the Medici’s.
Whatever liberties lie within this tale are pure Dunant, for this is an author whose imagination has no use for convention or predictability. Indeed, it is the exuberant joy of such imagination that paints page after page with a great visual and emotional feast, “a single voice lost in a chorus of others.”