"The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant

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Sarah Dunant's "The Birth of Venus" takes place in Savonarola's Florence, and our heroine loves learning, is conversant with the classics, and lives amidst the making of some of the greatest art in history.

This story is told mainly in flashback, but we lead off with the death of an aged nun. When the nun's body is prepared for burial, the shocked sisters find an ornate snake tattoo on her abdomen, the head of which is unmistakably at her private parts. In this woman's past, she is forced into a convent in newly-pious and reactionary Florence under Savonarola. The story encompasses this crucible, and is populated by less-than-stellar male characters. (There are enough men in it, so that if you took the best characteristic of each of them, you might construct one satisfactory man.) This book covers the epochal moments in our heroine's life, from her meeting and relationship with Michelangelo, to her entering the nunnery to escape persecution.

This is yet another indictment of Church-as-State, and just another chapter in the story of why the separation is so necessary. It is also a very vivid book, well-told, and a highlight of my 2006 reading year. It deserves most of its accolades.
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