“Getting Under Their Skins”, lecture by Sarah Dunant, Vancouver Writers Festival (October 25)

I had heard Sarah Dunant speak as part of a panel at a Vancouver Writers Festival event a year or so ago. I always harbor hopes (I know I need an actual plan) of writing a historical novel, so I was particularly intrigued by the description of this session, which promised to tell about how Dunant had done her research for her novels based in Renaissance Italy.

I was unprepared for how wonderful a lecture this was. This article describes what is undoubtedly a very similar version given in 2014.

The moderator introduced Dunant as someone who strives to make complex information understandable. What a perfect description of a communicator, and every technical writer (like me) can recognize that concept. Dunant’s career arc began with a history degree at Cambridge, followed by a brief career as a BBC producer, before she later started writing crime novels and then historical fiction (so far based in Renaissance Italy).

The lecture began with Dunant’s 2000 visit to Florence with two preteen daughters in tow. Her efforts to excite her daughters, not necessarily enamored with Renaissance history, led her to look for the women. With the aid of numerous images of magnificent Renaissance art, we see how men, as living human beings, are brought to the forefront of religious scenes, which are imbued with the character of Renaissance Florence. Medici family members appear in a painting of the adoration of the Magi. Religious scenes occur in Florentian palazzos. But what about women? First we see Madonnas, beautiful, increasingly more realistic, but still dreamy, ethereal, and disengaged from the viewer. The increased acceptance of secularism leads to magnificent paintings of mythological figures, but Botticelli’s Venus is as dreamy and disengaged as any preceding Madonna.

But consider The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, a famed Venetian painter, in 1538. This woman looks at the viewer directly. Stepping outside the lecture for the rest of the paragraph: Note that the Khan Academy exposition claims the woman is unknown, while Wikipedia claims it is the courtesan Angela del Moro. The Uffizi website (the painting is on display at the Uffizi in Florence) does not state who she might be, but describes the painting as meant to be an instructive gift from the Duke of Urbino to the Duke’s new and very young bride.

Tiziano - Venere di Urbino - Google Art Project.jpg
Tiziano – Venere di Urbino – Google Art Project” by TitianbQGS8pnP5vr2Jg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

In any event, Sarah Dunant saw this woman, believed to be Titian’s courtesan companion by at least some experts, as the inspiration for her novel In the Company of the Courtesan. Dunant expounded on the economics and power structures of Venice, and how the oligarchic power structure meant that at least half the “well-bred” women in Venice had no choice but to accept being sequestered in convents, as there would be too many descendants and claimants to power otherwise, and dowries had become very expensive. But this also meant that there needed to be a class of women to satisfy the unmarried upper-middle-class gentry and upper-class noblemen. These courtesans were expected to be beautiful and educated, and often kept their own houses with exotic pets (including parrots who could swear in Latin). Among some courtesans’ accessories were dwarfs, who served as jesters. Dunant saw the image of a clearly perceptive dwarf in one of the paintings of Renaissance Venice, and was inspired to make him the narrator for “In the Company of the Courtesan”. If the courtesan herself had been the narrator, she would inevitably have been quite unsympathetic.

So back to the young women who were led to convents, for one reason or another, including disfigurement by smallpox or other deformities, a desire to preserve a larger dowry for another sister, or simple inconvenience caused to their families. These women are the subject of Dunant’s novel Sacred Hearts. Any upper-class or upper-middle-class woman would lead a sequestered life, whether she was confined in her home, or confined in a convent. Was the convent necessarily worse? Certainly there was violence and drama and suicide. But there was learning and art and perhaps safety. Nuns were playwrights, and enacted theatrical works for each other. Their works were distributed clandestinely among convents. They were painters and musicians and scholars.

I have skipped over the Borgia portion of the lecture, although it was no less well-done. Dunant pointed out several times that history does not need to be the progression of kings, wars, and treaties that those of us over 40 undoubtedly learned in school. History is a reflection of the questions we ask of the past. If we seek historical sources like the wills of courtesans, the ledgers of convents, and so forth, we can learn more than we expect.


Attending this lecture today was coincidental to the news that a wonderful history professor Lisa Jardine has died today, and her publisher has made her latest work, “Temptations in the Archives”, freely available. This book focuses on Dutch culture from the late 1500s, but I wanted to point out the book link nonetheless. “Temptation in the Archives is a collection of essays by Lisa Jardine, that takes readers on a journey through the Dutch Golden Age.”

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