Sarah Dunant, whose The Birth of Venus was my favorite book of 2004, returns to Italy with In the Company of the Courtesan. This time, the action begins in Rome in 1527. We're in the company of Bucino, a most resourceful man dwarf, actor-juggler and business manager for Fiammetta Bianchini, a beautiful young courtesan. But the Second Sack of Rome sends the courtesan and her dwarf to her native Venice. It's a city as strange and exotic to Bucino who abhors water as a shrewd, intelligent dwarf is to most Venetians. The pair arrive to find Fiammetta's mother dead and her house in the care of a slovenly woman who soon disappears, along with the ruby they had counted on to finance Fiammetta's entry into Venetian society. Fiammetta soon becomes dependent on the assistance of a blind healer called La Draga, a woman Bucino instinctively distrusts. But not long after the loss of their fortune, Bucino finds a way for himself and his lady to re-establish themselves, with a touch of bribery, a secret hidden in a book and a great deal of panache.

In the Company of the Courtesan portrays a vibrant city at a dangerous time, when religion and politics clashed, often with violence. The city squares, bridges and canals teem with trade and colorful characters. Fiammetta's circle includes real-life historic figures, such as Aretino, who wrote both religious works and scandalous sonnets, and the painter Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian. In a delicious scene set in Tiziano's studio, Dunant imagines Fiammetta as the subject of one of his most famous nudes. But while Fiammetta's beauty and talents support their lifestyle, this is Bucino's journey, the story of a man who can only maintain hard-won success by confronting everything he fears. Ultimately, this is a novel not about religious or social politics, but the secrets of the heart: how love can drive the smart and cunning to the brink of foolishness, and what happens when desire battles with contentment. Leslie Budewitz treasures a small collection of Venetian Murano glass earrings.

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