Picks and Pans Review: The Birth of Venus

updated 02/23/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Sarah Dunant

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Sixteenth-century Florence may have been long ago and far away, but as Dunant adroitly demonstrates, its political and religious turmoil—and debates about homosexuality—have eerie parallels in the present day. In 1528 Tuscany, an elderly nun seemingly dies of a tumor, but it's a phony made of pig entrails. She also turns out to have a lewd snake tattoo.

The nun leaves behind a testament revealing her backstory before she fled to the convent: She is Alessandra Cecchi, the fiercely intelligent daughter of a wealthy Florentine merchant. As a sheltered teen, she yearns to be an artist and schemes to get time alone with a reclusive painter. But she allows herself to be talked into wedding a much older man who burdens her with a dangerous secret. At the same time, reactionary friar Savonarola and his brutal Taliban-style enforcers begin to denounce and oppress sinners, especially women. Venus is abroad mural bursting with color, passion and intrigue. It's also a rousing wake-up call for anyone who snoozed through Renaissance history.

NOVEL

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