We’re in Tuscany in 1528 where a nun, Alessandra Cecchi, has just died having left instructions that she is not to be undressed. The Mother Superior overrides the old lady’s wishes and commands two young nuns to prepare her body for burial in the normal way. On her body they find a huge tattoo of a snake, starting on her back, encircling her waist and ending with its head and forked tongue pointing into her genitals. How on earth did an elderly nun acquire such a thing?
The rest of Sarah Dunant’s best novel (2003) comprises an explanatory memoir, left by Alessandra in the capable hands of her former black slave and lifelong friend, Erila. She’s bright, feisty, brave and artistically talented but not conventionally attractive. We follow her – the daughter of a prosperous cloth merchant (although there’s a bit of surprise in the mix relating to that) – through the first Medici rule in Florence and then the torture-fuelled horror of the Savonarola years. Along the way she marries for social convenience, safety and because it’s what her family requires. Then there’s the reclusive, troubled man she calls “the painter” from whom she learns much to improve her own art. He is a vital strand in her life. Who exactly is he, you wonder? Most readers will probably work out his identity before the truth is finally revealed and we learn how she came to carry a serpent on her body.
Underpinning all this is a reasonably accurate account of what life in Florence must have been like in the late fifteenth century – and it isn’t pretty. There is also a great deal of intelligent background about art, religion and how the two things complement or confound each other against devastating political power struggles.
The characterisation delights too. Erila is the friend we’d all like to have – frank, sensible, caring and able to use her own independence and courage to make things happen. Alessandra’s husband, the generally decent, reasonable and believable Christoforo is quite something too – he doesn’t want to marry, for reasons which soon become clear, any more than Alessandra does but he needs a wife and child for form’s sake.
I read this book when it was first published nearly 20 years ago and have never forgotten the drama of that opening: the “respectable” old nun and the highly erotic tattoo. Like good cheese or wine it seems to have matured since then and I enjoyed revisiting a fine historical novel which remains fresh and compelling.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry