In the Company of the Courtesan

In the Company of the Courtesan

by Sarah Dunant

I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant.

Everybody loves writing about courtesans, geishas, kept women, all of low birth but with high ambition, beauty and brains. In the past, your options were limited if you weren’t in the nobility, and if you were born to a good family it was either marriage or the convent. Fiametta, the 16th century courtesan of the title, has nerves of steel and boundless ambition. She flees the sack of Rome at the beginning of In the Company of the Courtesan, along with her best friend and business partner, Bucino the dwarf, and they set up shop at the center of world commerce, Venice. Dunant does a great job of reminding us of what a tightrope Fiametta must walk to pay the bills and keep her wealthy clients happy, keeping in mind that after 30, like a supermodel, you best have invested wisely. In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The books is In The Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant.

One of my favorite places to read about is Venice, and this book is set in the 16th century, when Venice was the trading capitol of the world. It’s the story of Fiametta, a successful courtesan narrated by her companion and business partner, the dwarf Bucino. Venice comes completely alive as a character In The Company of the Courtesan, from stinky canals to golden domes, and visits to the Jewish ghetto, and La Draga, the blind healer who becomes a metaphor for the city itself — beautiful but not exactly above board. Dunant has meticulously researched this novel and peoples it with names you might recognize.  In fact, her inspiration for Fiametta was the painting The Venus of Umbria, which is reproduced as the cover of the book. Beauty and commerce — that’s Fiametta and Venice as well. In The Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant.

Fiametta, the businesswoman of the title, is doing pretty well in Rome in the year 1527, until the city is sacked. She swallows her jewels and flees to Venice with her best friend and partner, the dwarf Bucino, who narrates the book. They set up shop in that watery city, with the help of the blind healer La Draga, and a cast of characters who live — like they do — at the fringe of society. In The Company of the Courtesan is a great look at the artists, writers, poets and prostitutes, always one wrong word away from poverty, exile, or worse. And Venice herself shines in this book, serene in the knowledge that it was the greatest, freest, wealthiest city in the world. But that much comfort demands sacrifice, and Fiametta and Bucino find themselves forced to make a choice that will change all their lives.  In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is In The Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant.

Well, everyone loves courtesans — this is my thirdfourth? — at least? book about these rarified ladies. I think the attraction for a writer must be the thrill of creating a character that will always be an observer, an outsider who may move through society but never really be part of it. Plus of course the sex.  In most cases these are poor girls with good looks and a little ambition. They can be poor but honest, or poor and devious, but always their lifestyle choice is an escape from poverty. Not too many fictional daughters of the nobility decide to live in a flop house and service fat old men with bad breath while waiting for their true love/patron/big break to come along.  So even though they wind up hung with jewels and trading quips with the King over tea, they are at heart that sweet young thing who rode into town on the back of the hay truck with nothing but their virtue left to barter. At least, that’s how it goes on the page. (And in Pretty Woman.) Possibly the real thing may be a little less heavy on the glamour.

The last Venetian hooker we met had a disfigured face and a tragic past, forced to turn to prostitution after a brush with the pox. (Okay, not so much a brush as the whole bucket.) We meet our latest courtesan — Fiametta — in 16th century Rome where she’s a practical businesswoman — like a corseted Donald Trump — comfortably running her own house. When Rome is sacked and her hair is chopped off by crazed Lutherans, she sensibly swallows her jewels and hits the road. There’s only one city more licentious than Rome, and that’s the center of the world (at the time): the city of Venice.  Our girl gets herself a hair weave (!) and goes back to work.

What’s unusual about In the Company of the Courtesan is that it gives a voice to that tragically neglected segment of the working population — the pimp. The narrator is Bucino, a dwarf and Fiametta’s best friend and *ahem* manager. Apparently in the 16th century, dwarves were the new black and everybody who was anybody had to have one. Bucino is a pretty realistically drawn character — he’s smart and loyal but not some kind of superhero. And he’s deathly afraid of water, which is a problem in the city of canals. I liked his normalness because I’ve read a lot of books where handicaps — particularly dwarfism for some reason — are cliff notes for character, or hide some sort of miraculous ability. The closest we’ll find to that in this book is La Draga, a blind healer, who may be a witch. Turns out, she’s lots of things but none of them are immediately apparent.

Dunant also does a fine job painting the city of Venice as a character in her own right (and Venice undeniably gets the feminine pronoun) with gilt masking decay, social rules as rigid and artificial as a Noh opera, and the shift and roll of the seas literally at your doorstep. There are also cameo appearances by some famous artists of the day, clients of Fiametta. And isn’t that what it really comes down to? Art and sex — as far as I can tell, the cornerstones of civilization. In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


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