A great read with unusual characters and non-typical plots, which somehow manages to be funny but also filled with fear and loneliness. Usually novels set in Renaissance Europe concern themselves with the wealthy men and women of the time (the Tudors, the Borgias, the Medici, the merchant princes), who enjoyed a degree of power that we today struggle to comprehend, or they zoom in on those personalities that remain well-known in modern times (Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gutenberg). These are often terrific books (‘Gutenberg’s Apprentice‘ for instance), but In the Company of the Courtesan is refreshing in focusing on the the outcasts of Renaissance Italy: the courtesans, dwarfs, jews and the blind.
The book begins with the violent of sack of Rome in 1527 by the German emperor’s men. Foreign soldiers and mercenaries roam the city, killing, robbing, raping and torturing the Romans – servants as well as cardinals. Two of the survivors of the disaster are the dwarf Buccini and his lady, the courtesan Fiometta. The pair have get out due to conning and pure luck, but they are not unscathed; they have lost their livelihood (it is difficult to be a high-class prostitute when your patrons are either dead or destitute) as well as their possessions (it has all been stolen or had to be left behind). With very little capital and things to sell, Buccini and Fiometta set out for Venice to rebuild their fortune.
There are plenty of power hungry duos in literature and on the tv-screen (Frank and Claire from House of Cards, Macbeth and lady Macbeth). But Buccini and Fiomatta are different; they are not cold and unfeeling, but are true friends and determined to fight of the poverty would normally be the fate of unmarried women of the lower classes and short people. Fiometta is beuatiful, educated and musical – she can satisfy both the body and mind of her clients. Buccini is acts as her pimp, accountant, butler and side-act in performances for clients. They develop a strong friendship and a sense of family together, and some of the best parts of the book are the two of them quipping and teasing each other.
Our main characters arrive in Venice with hardly any funds or contacts, and particularly Fiomatta is still recovering from the horrors of Rome. Buccini is not extremely optimistic (He describes himself and his lady as ‘a deformity and a shaved whore’), but they must use all of their talents and skills to rise up in society. The competition between the courtesans is brutal, for many women would want to not only live in luxury, but to be in charge of their own purses, their own business and their own lives – and high-class prostitution really was the only way for young women to achieve that. And these girls are very young! By the time you are twenty-three, a courtesan is considered long in the tooth. But our two heroes try, because the alternative is abject poverty. There is no welfare state and those that cannot work starve.
“(…) We are working men and women. All of us. Despite the burdens of our race or our deformity, we have found ways to be in the world, dependent on no one, earning our living with a kind of pride.”
More than any thing, this book is about those social groups that have become invisible in history, who were nor recognized as significant to their own time, but who made important contributions their society and culture. The courtesans, of course, lived amongst the wealthiest and most powerful people of the Renaissance, and they could influence them, if they wanted to. Buccini comes to befriend one of the Jews, a pawn-broker, in the Venice ghetto; his work is essential to the Italian economy, but he is forced to live in hiding at the fringe of society. Then there is the mysterious La Draga, a healer with extraordinary powers of healing, awareness of her surroundings and understanding of the human soul. Her medical skills are highly sought after, but she too is a character who’s life and livelihood depends on the mercy of the public. These are all people who are tolerated, but never truly accepted.
I have grown fond of [my body’s] strangeness, which, after all, is not so strange to me.
Buccino is our narrator for most of the book and he is a joy to spend time with. He admires, cares for and understands Fiomatta, but other than that he is a very lonely man. We understand that he is educated, but, as a short-person, he constantly has be aware of the dangers that face a man like him in that time. They make presumptions about him, think they can openly mock him and he is in constant danger. He says he is not ashamed of the body he was born with, but seems to be a bit of a hypocrite in his fear and distain for La Draga. Buccino claims to accept himself and his limited opportunities in life, but does he really?
All in all, In the Company of the Courtesan is a marvelous book which deals with themes of disability, love and the very human need for acceptance and family that we all carry within us. It is well-written, well-researched and a can not recommend it enough.
PS. It is great to read about a time when plumpness was considered beautiful on a woman.