Skip to main content



In the Company of the Courtesan

chapter one

Rome, 1527

My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting
color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy
Roman emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God's eternal
city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent
on pillage and punishment.

Italy was a living chessboard for the ambitions of half of Europe
in those days. The threat of war was as regular as the harvest,
alliances made in winter were broken by spring, and there were
places where women bore another child by a different invading
father every other year. In the great and glorious city of Rome, we
had grown soft living under God's protection, but such was the
instability of the times that even the holiest of fathers made
unholy alliances, and a pope with Medici blood in his veins was
always more prone to politics than to prayer.

In the last few days before the horror struck, Rome still couldn't
bring herself to believe that her destruction was nigh. Rumors
crept like bad smells through the streets. The stonemasons shoring
up the city walls told of a mighty army of Spaniards, their
savagery honed on the barbarians of the New World, swelled with
cohorts of German Lutherans fueled on the juices of the nuns they
had raped on their journey south. Yet when the Roman defense led by
the nobleman Renzo de Ceri marched through the town touting for
volunteers for the barricades, these same bloodthirsty giants
became half-dead men marching on their knees, their assholes close
to the ground to dispel all the rotting food and bad wine they had
guzzled on the way. In this version, the enemy was so pathetic
that,\ even were the soldiers to find the strength to lift their
guns, they had no artillery to help them, and with enough stalwart
Romans on the battlements, we could drown them in our piss and
mockery as they tried to scale their way upward. The joys of war
always talk better than they play; still, the prospect of a battle
won by urine and bravura was enticing enough to attract a few
adventurers with nothing to lose, including our stable boy, who
left the next afternoon.

Two days later, the army arrived at the gates and my lady sent me
to get him back.

On the evening streets, our louche, loud city had closed up like a
clam. Those with enough money had already bought their own private
armies, leaving the rest to make do with locked doors and badly
boarded windows. While my gait is small and bandied, I have always
had a homing pigeon's sense of direction, and for all its twists
and turns, Rome had long been mapped inside my head. My lady
entertained a client once, a merchant captain who mistook my
deformity for a sign of God's special grace and who promised me a
fortune if I could find him a way to the Indies across the open
sea. But I was born with a recurring nightmare of a great bird
picking me up in its claws and dropping me into an empty ocean, and
for that, and other reasons, I have always been afraid of

As the walls came into sight, I could see neither lookouts nor
sentries. Until now we had never had need of such things, our
rambling fortifications being more for the delight of antiquarians
than for generals. I clambered up by way of one of the side towers,
my thighs thrumming from the deep tread of the steps, and stood for
a moment catching my breath. Along the stone corridor of the
battlement, two figures were slouched down against the wall. Above
me, above them, I could make out a low wave of moaning, like the
murmur of a congregation at litany in church. In that moment my
need to know became greater than my terror of finding out, and I
hauled myself up over uneven and broken stones as best I could
until I had a glimpse above the top.

Below me, as far as the eye could see, a great plain of darkness
stretched out, spiked by hundreds of flickering candles. The
moaning rolled like a slow wind through the night, the sound of an
army joined in prayer or talking to itself in its sleep. Until then
I think even I had colluded in the myth of our invincibility. Now I
knew how the Trojans must have felt as they looked down from their
walls and saw the Greeks camped before them, the promise of revenge
glinting off their polished shields in the moonlight. Fear spiked
my gut as I scrambled back down onto the battlement, and in a fury
I went to kick the sleeping sentries awake. Close to, their hoods
became cowls, and I made out two young monks, barely old enough to
tie their own tassels, their faces pasty and drawn. I drew myself
to my full height and squared up to the first, pushing my face into
his. He opened his eyes and yelled, thinking that the enemy had
sent a fatheaded, smiling devil out of Hell for him early. His
panic roused his companion. I put my fingers to my lips and grinned
again. This time they both squealed. I've had my fair share of
pleasure from scaring clerics, but at that moment I wished that
they had more courage to resist me. A hungry Lutheran would have
had them split on his bayonet before they might say Dominus
vobiscum. They crossed themselves frantically and, when I
questioned them, waved me on toward the gate at San Spirito, where,
they said, the defense was stronger. The only strategy I have
perfected in life is one to keep my belly full, but even I knew
that San Spirito was where the city was at its most vulnerable,
with Cardinal Armellini's vineyards reaching to the battlements and
a farmhouse built up and into the very stones of the wall

Our army, such as it was when I found it, was huddled in clumps
around the building. A couple of makeshift sentries tried to stop
me, but I told them I was there to join the fight, and they laughed
so hard they let me through, one of them aiding me along with a
kick that missed my rear by a mile. In the camp, half the men were
stupid with terror, the other half stupid with drink. I never did
find the stable boy, but what I saw instead convinced me that a
single breach here and Rome would open up as easily as a wife's
legs to her handsome neighbor.

Back home, I found my mistress awake in her bedroom, and I told her
all I had seen. She listened carefully, as she always did. We
talked for a while, and then, as the night folded around us, we
fell silent, our minds slipping away from our present life, filled
with the warmth of wealth and security, toward the horrors of a
future that we could barely imagine.

By the time the attack came, at first light, we were already at
work. I had roused the servants before dawn, and my lady had
instructed them to lay the great table in the gold room, giving
orders to the cook to slaughter the fattest of the pigs and start
preparing a banquet the likes of which were usually reserved for
cardinals or bankers. While there were mutterings of dissent, such
was her authority—or possibly their desperation& --- that
any plan seemed comforting at the moment, even one that appeared to
make no sense.

The house had already been stripped of its more ostentatious
wealth: the great agate vases, the silver plates, the majolica
dishes, the gilded crystal Murano drinking glasses, and the best
linens had all been stowed away three or four days before, wrapped
first inside the embroidered silk hangings, then the heavy Flemish
tapestries, and packed into two chests. The smaller one was so
ornate with gilt and wood marquetry that it had to be covered again
with burlap to save it from the damp. It had taken the cook, the
stable boy, and both of the twins to drag the chests into the yard,
where a great hole had been dug under the flagstones close to the
servants' latrines. When they were buried and covered with a
blanket of fresh feces (fear is an excellent loosener of the
bowels), we let out the five pigs, bought at a greatly inflated
price a few days earlier, and they rolled and kicked their way
around, grunting their delight as only pigs can do in shit.

With all trace of the valuables gone, my lady had taken her great
necklace& --- the one she had worn to the party at the Strozzi
house, where the rooms had been lit by skeletons with candles in
their ribs and the wine, many swore afterward, had been as rich and
thick as blood& --- and to every servant she had given two fat
pearls. The remaining ones she told them were theirs for the
dividing if the chests were found unopened when the worst was over.
Loyalty is a commodity that grows more expensive when times get
bloody, and as an employer Fiammetta Bianchini was as much loved as
she was feared, and in this way she cleverly pitted each man as
much against himself as against her. As to where she had hidden the
rest of her jewelry, well, that she did not reveal.

What remained after this was done was a modest house of modest
wealth with a smattering of ornaments, two lutes, a pious Madonna
in the bedroom, and a wood panel of fleshy nymphs in the salon,
decoration sufficient to the fact of her dubious profession but
without the stench of excess many of our neighbors' palazzi
emitted. Indeed, a few hours later, as a great cry went up and the
church bells began to chime, each one coming fast on the other,
telling us that our defenses had been penetrated, the only aroma
from our house was that of slow-roasting pig, growing succulent in
its own juices.

Those who lived to tell the tale spoke with a kind of awe of that
first breach of the walls; of how, as the fighting got fiercer with
the day, a fog had crept up from the marshes behind the enemy
lines, thick and gloomy as broth, enveloping the massing attackers
below so that our defense force couldn't fire down on them
accurately until, like an army of ghosts roaring out of the mist,
they were already upon us. After that, whatever courage we might
have found was no match for the numbers they could launch. To
lessen our shame, we did take one prize off them, when a shot from
an arquebus blew a hole the size of the Eucharist in the chest of
their leader, the great Charles de Bourbon. Later, the goldsmith
Benvenuto Cellini boasted to anyone who would listen of his
miraculous aim. But then, Cellini boasted of everything. To hear
him speak& --- as he never stopped doing, from the houses of
nobles to the taverns in the slums& --- you would have thought
the defense of the city was down to him alone. In which case it is
him we should blame, for with no leader, the enemy now had nothing
to stop their madness. From that first opening, they flowed up and
over into the city like a great wave of cockroaches. Had the
bridges across the Tiber been destroyed, as the head of the defense
force, de Ceri, had advised, we might have trapped them in the
Trastevere and held them off for long enough to regroup into some
kind of fighting force. But Rome had chosen comfort over common
sense, and with the Ponte Sisto taken early, there was nothing to
stop them.

And thus, on the sixth day of the month of May in the year of our
Lord 1527, did the second sack of Rome begin.

What couldn't be ransomed or carried was slaughtered or destroyed.
It is commonly said now that it was the Lutheran lansquenets troops
who did the worst. While the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, might
be God's sworn defender, he wasn't above using the swords of
heretics to swell his army and terrify his enemies. For them Rome
was sweet pickings, the very home of the Antichrist, and as
mercenaries whom the emperor had conveniently forgotten to pay,
they were as much in a frenzy to line their pockets as they were to
shine their souls. Every church was a cesspool of corruption, every
nunnery the repository for whores of Christ, every orphan skewered
on a bayonet (their bodies too small to waste their shot on) a soul
saved from heresy. But while all that may be true, I should say
that I also heard as many Spanish as German oaths mixed in with the
screaming, and I wager that when the carts and the mules finally
rode out of Rome, laden with gold plate and tapestries, as much of
it was heading for Spain as for Germany.

Had they moved faster and stolen less in that first attack, they
might have captured the greatest prize of all: the Holy Father
himself. But by the time they reached the Vatican palace, Pope
Clement VII had lifted up his skirts (to find, no doubt, a brace of
cardinals squeezed beneath his fat stomach) and, along with a dozen
sacks hastily stuffed with jewels and holy relics, run as if he had
the Devil on his heels to the Castel Sant'Angelo, the drawbridge
rising up after him with the invaders in sight and a dozen priests
and courtiers still hanging from its chains, until they had to
shake them off and watch them drown in the moat below.

With death so close, those still living fell into a panic over the
state of their souls. Some clerics, seeing the hour of their own
judgment before them, gave confessions and indulgences for free,
but there were others who made small fortunes selling forgiveness
at exorbitant rates. Perhaps God was watching as they worked:
certainly when the Lutherans found them, huddled like rats in the
darkest corners of the churches, their bulging robes clutched
around them, the wrath visited upon them was all the more
righteous, as they were disemboweled, first for their wealth and
then for their guts.

Meanwhile, in our house, as the clamor of violence grew in the
distance, we were busy polishing the forks and wiping clean the
second-best glasses. In her bedroom, my lady, who had been
scrupulous as ever in the business of her beauty, put the finishing
touches to her toilette, and came downstairs. The view from her
bedroom window now showed the occasional figure skidding and
hurtling through the streets, his head twisting backward as he ran,
as if fearful of the wave that was to overwhelm him. It would not
be long before the screams got close enough for us to distinguish
individual agonies. It was time to rally our own defense

Excerpted from IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN © Copyright
2011 by Sarah Dunant. Reprinted with permission by Random House, a
division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

In the Company of the Courtesan
by by Sarah Dunant

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400063817
  • ISBN-13: 9781400063819