Sarah Dunant’s public Lecture: “Getting under their skins: history, fiction and art”

The English novelist Sarah Dunant held a public lecture at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities on Tuesday 7th October. Starting from her acclaimed historical novels set in the Italian Renaissance, Dunant focused on how she took inspiration for her works by primarily observing the minor characters, especially women, in renowned paintings by master artists of the period. Through a fascinating and engaging presentation, Dunant relived the emotional impact the fabulous cities and the magnificent paintings she saw during her Italian stay had on her works as a writer. She underlined her surprise in noticing that, in Renaissance art and culture, male artists, architects and historical characters dramatically outweighed the very limited female presence. This took her to wonder what kind of life and expectations women of that period might have, and decided to investigate their psychology and daily life. The results of her enquiry translated into three novels, which form a consistent trilogy: The Birth of Venus; In the Company of the Courtesan; Sacred Hearts.

When recalling the phases of her work, the author stressed two main points she considered as pivotal: the relationship between history and fiction, and the close connection between beauty and brutality. As for the first point, Dunant explained that all the settings of her novels were supported by evidence found in documents and chronicles. She pointed out she only resorted to her imagination when gaps needed to be filled, namely when feelings, expectations, desires are concerned. This is where the main role of fiction appears to lie: to supply the reader with information history did not care to record. On raising the second point, Dunant invited the audience to question received conceptions of the past by aiming at unveiling unusual and unconventional aspects of past events. In this sense, she pointed out how the vast majority of the remarkable beauties of the Italian Renaissance appear to be intimately connected with brutality and corruption.

Thanks to Dunant’s extraordinary openness to dialogue and her brilliant conduction of the lecture and the following Q&A session, the audience profited considerably from a lively and highly enriching discussion. Sarah Dunant then took the disquieting relationship between beauty and brutality as the point of departure for the seminar she held the following day. She met students and researchers from different fields of study, and conducted the discussion in a masterly fashion, giving everyone a chance to discuss directly with her in a stimulating and cross-disciplinary context.

Giulia Crespi and Barbara Tanzi-Imbri. PhD Candidates (MLaC-Italian)

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