In the Company
Of the Courtesan

Sarah Dunant
In our review of Paul Weidner's charming Memoirs of a Dwarf At the Sun King's Court, we delivered that "oldest of old wheezes," the one about the dwarf that went around sticking his nose in everybody's business.

    If we are to believe Weidner's narrator [we concluded], it's literally true ... When hurrying around the corners of various rooms in various palaces of Louis XIV, he becomes involved in crotch-level collisions (their crotches; his face) with dukes, marquises, princes and princesses, and in a couple of cases, representatives of the Pope in a hurry.

Dwarfs were a favored narrative device in Rabelaisian literature, because they were considered to be smart, rude, and --- from their down-to-earth point-of-view --- able to see things the rest might be missing. The dwarf in Swift's tale of Lilliput was a constant thorn for Gulliver: playing dastardly tricks on one who was even closer to the base than he was.

This fascination with the little people extends to our own time. The L A Times reports one of its most e-mailed stories is of a dispute between two "rival bands" of dwarfs, one known as MiniKiss, the other Tiny Kiss.

    They might be pint-sized performers onstage, but offstage they're in a giant-sized dispute ... Joey Fatale, the 4-foot, 4-inch New Yorker who heads the all-dwarf KISS tribute band MiniKiss, is denying published reports that he tried to sneak past security last month at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to confront a rival band leader, 4-foot "Little" Tim Loomis of Tiny Kiss, for allegedly ripping off his idea for such a group.

Writer Sarah Dunant has revived the dwarf-as-astute-commentator on the rest of the world. In the Company of the Courtesan takes us to Rome during the sack in 1527 by Luther's protestants. After being beaten, ravaged and shorn of her lovely golden hair, Fiametta Bianchini and her dwarf Bucino steal off to Venice. There they build a new life where, although she is aged by courtesan standards (late twenties), they prosper through their partnership.

Bucino is an anomaly: he is literate, he is astute; he is an eagle-eyed minion who guards the funds and even the overly generous habits of Fiametta, scolding her when --- for instance --- she gives her services for free, to a nineteen-year-old nobleman. He knows that to make a successful bakery, you don't pass out the hot cakes for free.

Any writer could probably cook up a plausible tale out of this, with appropriate violence, passion, thievery, whoring, and skullduggery. The difference is that Ms. Dunant has done her research, to such an extent that we learn a great deal about exotic sixteenth century Italian doings ... such as how dwarfs were treated (objects of sadistic sport); what street-life in Venice was like (constant brawls on the bridges the rule); how Renaissance art grew (Titian is a not-so-minor character here); and the rules under which Italian whores were to operate: They were, it turns out, not so different than the geishas in Japan --- expected to feed, flirt and physically and verbally delight their powerful, sometimes extremely ancient customers. Bucino's cruel comments on geezers that come to her would cause him to be labeled an ageist in our own time. When a "gizzard-necked Florentine scholar" is doing the beast with two backs with Fiametta, he

    huffed and puffed so much that it was hard to tell if he was coming soon or going for ever.

In the Company of the Courtesan is so nicely composed that instead of being merely the life story of a whore and her tiny pimp in Rennaisance Italy, we have a historical romp, facts and merry story-telling well mixed, so that we soon learn, to our pleasure, that we are being enculturated as well as being entertained.

--- Pamela Wylie
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