Friday, May 7, 2010

Little man

I took one art history class when I was in college: Italian Renaissance art. I'd just gotten back from a semester abroad and was feeling very sophisticated. I remember researching and writing a paper on a portrait of Pietro Aretino by Titian (see below) that hangs in the Frick Collection. (Bragging: I remember it all these years later because I was surprised by the A I received.) Signore Aretino plays an important role in Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan and I was thrilled to get reacquainted.

The main character in this novel isn't Aretino and it isn't the (fictional) courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, either. It's her loyal and loving pimp and business manager, a wily and sarcastic dwarf named Bucino Teodoldi. The two escape the Sack of Rome in 1527 -- but not before Fiammetta's long golden locks are shaved to her scalp -- and make their way to her home town of Venice. They've each swallowed a fortune in gemstones -- jewels that will help them re-establish Fiammetta as a premier courtesan in their new city. They enlist the help of the blind healer La Draga who helps to restore Fiammetta's beauty and confidence. And they meet Aretino, whom they have known in Rome. It is Bucino's discovery of a secret, locked book full of Aretino's erotic writings that ultimately puts Fiammetta back on top (so to speak).

I love a good historical novel that you can sink your teeth into, and at 14 hours (which flew by) -- with terrific characters, a fascinating setting, and lots of down and dirty details -- Courtesan is nice and chewy. Dunant clearly envisions Fiammetta as the racy Titian nude hanging at the Galleria degli Uffizi: The Venus of Urbino (a key scene in the novel takes place as she is posing for Titian). Everything is viewed through the eyes of Bucino -- who professes cynicism and ennui and a cold eye for the business of love, but he is really quite frightened of life. He will always be the outsider, the one who is different, and this colors everything he thinks, feels and does. I am not doing this novel justice, but I want you to discover its many secrets on your own.

Stephen Hoye (whose interpretation of Frances O'Roark Dowell's Chicken Boy I enjoyed several years ago) reads Bucino. He is world-weary and superior -- Bucino has seen it all (which he probably has) and he's above it. Hoye does very little distinct voicing and there is a sameness to his phrasings that initially had me worried: Can I listen to these rhythms and this snooty tone for 14 hours? But as the story progressed, I began to hear the subtle emotions motivating Bucino -- that fear and longing for love and acceptance that informs all his actions. By the end, I am in tears (along with Bucino). The individual characterizations are there, too, they're just not obvious. (Hoye doesn't, for example, raise the scale of his voice to read women.) It's almost like Hoye is compelling you to listen more closely: Pay attention, he says, you're going to want to hear this! And he's right.

I confess to initial surprise at the lack of a British accent, but ultimately, what accent should Italian characters portrayed in English be using? The only accent Hoye employs is a kind of mittel-European one for a Jewish pawnbroker. I think I only assumed British because the author is. It doesn't matter: The power of Dunant's storytelling will emerge through any good reader.

Here's Pietro il grande! What a bruiser!

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