The Rebirth of Venus

by Linda Proud


Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Rebirth of Venus by Linda Proud The final volume in the Botticelli trilogy, The Rebirth of Venus is the largest and deepest. The Renaissance was far more than art, scientific discovery and religious protest. Behind all these lay the rediscovery of pagan Greek philosophy and a flowering of independent thought the Church could not suppress. Even some clerics embraced the new learning - but it also had powerful enemies.

The year 1505 finds Tommaso de' Maffei (a rare fictional character in a novel rich with historical figures) in chilly London, where he has fled after Florence became too hot for safety. His obstinate students exasperate him, and he is still mired in grief years after his wife's death. His beloved philosophy has become a mental exercise, a passionate intellectual escape rather than a guiding light. When Erasmus asks him to set down his memories of Pico della Mirandola, a brilliant but reckless young philosopher who died before reaching his full promise, Tommaso's memory circles back to Florence in 1482. He is in Sandro Botticelli's workshop amid a crowd of friends, patrons and uninvited, rowdy children for the unveiling of a new masterpiece, a nude Venus "rising from the sea and wafting to shore on a shell."

If Botticelli has reached the pinnacle of his greatness, Florence is past hers. Lorenzo de' Medici is plagued by gout. The poor crowd the city while Lorenzo's heir lives in a magnificent new villa ten miles to the north. Savonarola has arrived, a "young Dominican friar, his chin blue with stubble, his eyes black under the cowl, his face overshadowed by a great hooked nose." On first acquaintance, Tommaso finds Savonarola's gentle, enigmatic piety both consoling and unsettling. But the Dominican's rise to power is fueled by more than his gentle sympathy for troubled souls. His preaching can change in an instant from compassion to wild-eyed fury: "Florence!" he thunders, "You will be scourged!"

Although the reckless, charismatic Pico may be the excuse for the story, it revolves around the mystery of Savonarola: Is he mad, divinely inspired, evil? The Rebirth of Venus offers no pat answers. Like the philosophy at its heart, it draws readers into the quest for a deeper, truer wisdom. (2008; 564 pages, including eight pages of Historical Notes)

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Other novels set in Renaissance Florence:

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (2004), about a young woman fascinated by the artist her father hires to paint a fresco in the chapel of his palazzo during Savonarola's rise. More info

Romola by George Eliot (originally published as a serial, 1862-63), about the spiritual awakening of an unhappily married woman during the time of Savonarola. More info

Rogue Angel by Carol Damioli (1994), about Fra Filippo Lippi, the fifteenth-century Florentine monk and artist who fathered Filippino Lippi, a character in The Rebirth of Venus. More info


Nonfiction relating to Pico della Mirandola and Savonarola:

Oration on the Dignity of Man by Pico della Mirandola (1486), Pico's introduction to his 900 theses dealing with religion, philosophy, science and magic. More info

Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy by Lauro Martines (2006). More info

The Triumph of the Cross by Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1496). More info


Online:

Pico della Mirandola by Richard Hooker at the Washington State University website

Girolamo Savonarola at The History Guide website


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