In the Company of the Courtesan

A Christmas gift and a few afternoons by the fire reading!


“In The Company of the Courtesan.”

                                                                by Sarah Dunant

venice               venice

Have you read it ?

A novel set in Venice 1527.


A friend gave me this wonderful historical and somewhat philosophical novel for Christmas. She knows me well, for Venice is one of my favourite cities. Its mystique in terms of history, architecture and intrigue seep from the very paving stones themselves.

I love wandering the narrow alleys observing people, life, culture, habits, traditions.

Venice is especially mystical early in the morning as the sun is rising, and when incidently the rubbish is being carried out of the city, as it was hundreds of years ago, on narrow wheeled carts and the supplies for restaurants and shops are being carried in, one can smell the coffee brewing in tiny cafes and can see locals scuttling in for their first espresso of the day, most likely lamenting the fact that so many tourists pour into their already overcrowded city.

Also late in the evenings when the sun has set and the last of the revellers have made their way home one can hear the final strains of a violin being played in a piazza, the sound carrying on the night air and echoing off the buildings creating a slightly ethereal atmosphere.


The mixture of water, domes, bridges, alleys and mist fuels the imagination.

I guess it is one of those places you either love or loathe.

Was Venice always so crowded and cosmopolitan? Probably. The very nature of its existence brought people from all over Europe.

And that is maybe why it is intriguing. The mix of cultures, thoughts and ideas.

And so to the story, which is also a mix but in this case of sexual politics, dark ironies and intrigue.


Cleverly written we are given an insight into the lives of the rich and the poor.

One can almost smell the mix of the putrid stench of the Venetian waterways with the subtle scents of the ladies of the night.

And one can just about feel the textures and vibrancy of the fabrics, fashion and clothes.

The young beautiful Fiammetta is a Courtesan of note, and whilst the story is not so much about her appearance it is an integral part of the story and one I shall briefly comment on.

Her clothes take weeks to make, all sewn carefully by hand, with intricate details only afforded by the very wealthy. The importance of looking different and having the best dress is of paramount importance.

Her beauty regimes are painstaking and tedious, hours spent with many helpers ensuring that  all the minute details of her person are perfect.

Strange potions are massaged onto her skin and through her hair. Concoctions of bean flour, mercury, dove entrails, camphor and egg white.

Does she I wonder wear the shoes of the day? The magnificent Chopine? A platform shoe that was made popular in Venice and reached its utmost peak of popularity in the mid 1500's? These shoes were a status symbol worn by those who considered themselves to be of high cultural and social standing. The higher the shoe, the higher the status of the wearer.

Apparently there are some of these amazing shoes still in existence that are up to 50cms tall. Can you believe it? Women were literally aiming to be taller than each other. Obviously one could not walk in these shoes unaided and therefore had to have a person accompany them to lean on and to help them along the street.

Ridiculous or what.

Venice was also renowned for its beautiful lace work and the textile historians agree that the exquisite embroideries for which Venice was famous throughout the 1500's were the precursor for what is now recognised as true needle lace.

So did the gorgeous Fiammetta wear the intricate lace made by the women of the tiny island of Burano , who still to this day sit in their doorways and with fine thread and needles produce pieces of work that is immensely delicate and beautiful.


And how does this in anyway relate to fashion and beauty 2010?

Surely we are so far removed from a 16th Century Venetian courtesan and her thoughts on fashion and beauty that the two lives, that being of a modern day woman and the 29yr old Fiammetta would have nothing in common.

But think a little.

Are we not a society obsessed with celebrity and status?

Look at all the magazines that fly off the shelves each week full of the latest person wearing the latest thing.

And what of beauty in all its minute detail?

There has never been a time when more beauty products are being made and used than in our present time. And are not some of the ingredients just as questionable?

And then of course fashion?

The variety and options are endless and don't we all search for that illusive piece that makes us feel special?


Maybe women in this age of feminism, when enlightenment and equality are so important really are no different from our ancestors of long ago, even those 500 years ago.

Maybe there is something in us all that wants to shine.

Just as did Fiammetta did 1527.

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