The centerpiece of Dunant’s superb novel is an accomplished courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, consort to cardinals, and her faithful friend and partner, the dwarf Bucino. The two are confronted by the imminent sacking of Rome in 1597 by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor.
The city is destroyed, the streets littered with the carnage of defeat, the victorious troops sating themselves on booty and blood. Walls and cupboards stripped of the most valuable items and buried beneath the stench of the pigsty, Fiammetta has prepared a feast at her villa, a respite of welcome in the midst of chaos.
Assuaging the appetites of marauders to gain their protection, her ploy is successful for a time. But the second wave brings pious Lutheran reformers who hack away Fiammetta’s long golden curls, scarring her skull with their enthusiastic scissors. With only the clothes on their backs and the jewels they have judiciously swallowed, Fiammetta and Bucino take to the roads with a stream of refugees, ultimately returning to Venice, the land of the courtesan’s birth, by a circuitous route, entering in the dark of night to avoid the plague patrols.
Fiammetta hopes to establish herself in the great merchant city-state with Bucino as her partner, using the secreted gems to finance their endeavor. First she enlists the aid of La Draga, a deformed, blind healer who uses her salves and unguents to heal Fiammetta’s hairless skull and restore her equally damaged spirit.
Meanwhile, Bucino familiarizes himself with the city and the characters who will so greatly affect their fortunes: Abdulla Pashna, a generous Turk; Pietro Arentino, a Roman writer attempting to mend former enmities and form a new alliance; the Jewish pawnbroker who buys the jewels and sets in motion the denouement of Fiammetta and Bucino’s carefully laid plans; and the powerful officials who rule the city, engaging in commerce while protecting the illusion of virtue and godliness.
Sixteenth-century Venice is viewed through Bucino’s eyes, he of small stature who relies on his instincts, urging Fiammetta’s recovery only to see her fall victim to the courtesan’s greatest enemy, that which she cannot have. It is Bucino who uncovers the ultimate betrayal, he who mulls the moral implications of a city steeped in sin while proclaiming virtue, he who must face his own great flaw.
This is historical fiction at its finest, the characters playing on a stage of political intrigue and religious fanaticism, men who indulge their senses with the excesses of wealth and the brokers who trade on their weaknesses: “Wherever there is public virtue there also is private vice.”
Fiammetta and Bucino deal in a murky world of shifting values; it is no small thing to sell the body, and with it to betray the soul. Dunant strips away the obvious, regardless how decadent or amusing it may be, mining the more complex regions of the human heart, plumbing the invaluable bounty of compassion and hope.