Thursday, 12 May 2016
Fashion and Fiction at the V & A: Sarah Dunant
Journalist and writer Rosie Goldsmith organizes this series of evenings at London’s V&A Museum –and can you imagine anything more Clothes in Books than something called Fashion and Fiction? - see my previous posts on talks there by Linda Grant and Margaret Atwood.
The latest event took place last week, and featured a conversation between Rosie and Sarah Dunant - writer, broadcaster and critic. Maybe you think of her as a presenter of arts shows, or else as a thriller writer. Most recently she has written 4 amazing books set in Renaissance Italy. Each is a standalone, based in a different city at a different time, and each helps to answer the question Where were the women? What were they doing? She looks at the lives of a woman who wanted to paint (Birth of Venus) a prostitute (In the Company of the Courtesan), nuns (Sacred Hearts) and Lucrezia Borgia (Blood and Beauty). They are real proper serious literary novels, but they are also immensely readable – page-turners.
Of course they are very well-researched, and Dunant had brought along a fascinating collection of slides to prove it. She used Italian art from the late 15th century onwards to show the changes in lives, in religion, in clothes over that period. It was a stunning talk, and one that left us wanting to re-read the books, and waiting for her next.
Sacred Hearts is my favourite of her books: Set in Ferrara in the 1570s, it looks at the lives of women in convents, and how everything was changing. She explains the different stories that led women to end up there – and shows that for some it was a very reasonable alternative to what might happen to them outside. We follow the stories of a number of the women, with one particularly compelling and sad story of an unhappy love affair. The book also looks in depth at the music in convents – and you can actually get a CD to go with the book, Sacred Hearts and Secret Music, the kind of pieces the nuns would have sung, by Palestrina and others. I did, of course, get the CD.
The picture above shows two nuns along with the Madonna and Child and St Lucy & St Catherine - it’s from the workshop of Paolo Veronese at around the right time for the book, and the image comes from the Athenaeum website.
Find out more about Fashion & Fiction if you think you’d be interested – here on Facebook, or Rosie Goldsmith's Twitter. The Victoria and Albert Museum website is here.