In the Company of the Courtesan

Dunant, Sarah

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Jul-13-2009
  • Last revised: Jul-05-2009


In the 1527 sack of Rome, undiscplined troops of the Holy Roman Emperor rape, pillage, and destroy. The beautiful couresan Fiammetta Bianchini opens her house to the marauders, inviting them inside for food and comfort. The act gives her household a moment’s reprieve. Her golden tresses savagely shorn, she swallows her jewels and escapes north to her native Venice in the company of her servant and companion, the dwarf, Bucino Teodoldi.

Arriving with almost nothing, they set about establishing a reputation and securing backers. The small company is helped by Fiammetta’s friend and admirer the satirist and poet, Pietro Aretino. Her portrait is painted by his friend, Titian.

Clever and loyal to a fault, Bucino frets over finances and willingly engages in subterfuges that mesmerize their audiences. Fiammetta accepts the attentions of tedious but wealthy admirers in exchange for a house and status. She comes to rely on a blind woman healer, called La Draga who supplies medicine and cosmetics. Bucino is suspicious and jealous, but he tolerates the competition grudingly. He too has many ailments, including headaches and arthritis, because of his deformity.

Suspense swirls around a banned book, a Jewish shopkeeper, and La Draga’s mysterious origins in the glass-making town of Murano.


A readable, evocative romance--more than a mystery--that draws on a wealth of scholarship to recreate singular lives from the Italian Renaissance, when marital and social mores differed greatly from our own. 

Narrated in the first person by the dwarf, the story is beguiling for its lyrical prose and attention to both medical and historical detail. Bucino’s severe headaches stem from the frequent ear and dental problems associated with achondroplasia. The spectre of aging and its attendant loss of income haunts the courtesan and her entourage.

Aretino and Titian were real people, and La Draga is based on the real Elena Cruisichi. Even the banned book is real: Aretino’s 'I modi,' which, with its sexually explicit illustrations, was so scandalous that it commanded astronomical prices and is now said to represent the foundations of pornography. Certainly successful courtesans, like Fiammetta, rose to prominence and respectability in that world, and clever dwarfs found employment and dignity by their wits. Both ran the risk of dying from their work.

For its its focus on the dwarf, Erica Jong really did not like this book.
(See her web site: ).

But I did.



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