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1. Alessandra has the will and the talent to be a painter. However, she does not have the training or the social opportunity she needs. How well does The Birth of Venus explain why there are no women’s names in the great roll call of artistic geniuses of the Renaissance?
2. The image of the serpent with a human head is a motif that runs through the novel in many different forms. What are its guises, and how does its meaning shift as the novel progresses?
3. In their own ways, both Alessandra and her mother subvert and rebel against the world they live in. Which one of them do you think is the happiest or most fulfilled?
4. The only character in the novel who seems to have any real freedom is Erila, so it is ironic that she is a slave with no rights or apparent power. How is it that she is able to walk an independent path when those around her are so trapped by their circumstances?
5. Lorenzo the Great dies early on in the novel, yet his spirit and that of his family stalk the book both politically and culturally. What does the book convey about him and the impact that the De Medicis had on Florence?
6. Alessandra’s entire world is contained by her belief in God. Yet at the time in which she is writing, there seem to exist two different versions of God, the one that prevails depending on whether the believer is a follower of the Renaissance or of Savonarola. What does Alessandra see as the difference between the two versions, and how fairly do you think she judges them?
7. To what extent is Savonarola the villain of the novel?
8. To what degree is this a novel about a city as much as a character?
9. The novel contains many different kinds of love: intellectual, spiritual, sexual, maternal. Which moves you most and why?
10. Alessandra and her brother Tomaso are at odds with each other from the beginning of the novel. To what extent should we trust Alessandra’s judgment of him, given that they are in competition for the same man?
11. How much sympathy do you have for Cristoforo as a character, and what image of homosexual life in Florence do you derive from his thoughts and actions?
12. Alessandra’s marriage, though painful in some ways, is in other ways quite fulfilling, given the confines of the time. In an era when women were seen as fundamentally inferior, do you think it would have been possible for them to have an equal relationship sexually and intellectually with men?
13. In the fifteenth century there was no word except “melancholy” for the mental state of depression, and there was no treatment for it. How different would suffering from depression have been in a time when all meaning was seen to emanate from God? And why does the painter fall into that condition?
14. The convent described at the end of the novel is based on real records and real places. If you were a woman in fifteenth-century Florence, would you have preferred to live outside or inside its walls?