I read Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus over seven years ago and really liked it, so when I saw this title in the library of the cruise ship I was on two weeks ago, I had to read it. I'm so glad I did.
This is Dunant's third book set in Italian Renaissance (I still need to read In the Company of the Courtesan, as well as the fourth book, Blood and Beauty, about the Borgias). This book takes place in 1570 at the Santa Caterina convent, a fictional community based on a real Benedictine convent outside Ferrara, Sant'Antonio in Polesine. Another convent in Ferrara referred to in the book, Corpus Domini, really exists, and some of the characters in the book, such as Duke Alfonso D'Este, were real people.
A fifteen-year-old girl named Isabetta is brought unwillingly to the convent. In those days, the value of a dowry had become outrageously high, and many families could only afford to marry off one daughter. Any others were often sent to the convent instead. In the case of Isabetta (who is given the novice name Serafina), she has fallen in love with an unsuitable man, her music teacher. Serafina is convinced he will come to rescue her, and initially she refuses to cooperate with the nuns. She's supposed to have a beautiful singing voice, which would be an asset to the convent choir, but at first she will not use it, changing her mind only when it becomes to her advantage to do so.
Suora (Sister) Zuana, born Faustina, was trained by her widowed father in medicine. When he dies unexpectedly, leaving her an insufficient dowry, and with no prospects (she's too smart and too plain) for marriage, she must also join the convent, but she grows to understand that she has more freedom there, as she is put in charge of the dispensary. Madonna Chiara, the abbess (in that position primarily due to the wealth of her family), assigns Serafina to work with Zuana. This doesn't make Suora Umiliana, the strict novice mistress, very happy. Umiliana believes the convent has become too worldly (servants clean their cells, and some nuns have fine furnishings and even dogs), and would prefer that members be more pious, even to the point of more self-mortification, fasting, and having religious visions.
The story alternates between Zuana's and Serafina's viewpoints. I don't want to give too much away, other than to point out that I tore through the last couple hundred pages of the book as the plot became more exciting.
In her research for the book, Dunant spent a week living in a Benedictine convent near Milan. In an interview, she commented on "the power of ritual and rhythm and routine" in the convent. My aunt has been a nun for over 65 years, and this gave me some insight into her experiences. I thought it was also interesting that life in this 1570 convent, in terms of its contacts with the outside world, was somewhat comparable to my aunt's experiences in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother married in the church adjacent to my aunt's convent in 1954 so that my aunt could attend the ceremony; in those days my aunt could not leave the site. I remember visiting my aunt at the convent in the early 1960s, but by the middle of that decade (after Vatican II), she could visit us. The opposite is starting to happen at the end of this novel - restrictions on contacts with outsiders, even family - as a result of responses of the Council of Trent to Protestant accusations and criticisms. Dunant talks about these more in her author's note (pages 409-410).
I also learned that the women's musical group Musica Secreta (instrumentalists and vocalists, including the Celestial Sirens) put together a recording, Sacred Hearts + Secret Music, of polyphony and chant from the era, including contemporaneous works by a composer referred to in the book (on page 280), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "the greatest composer of liturgical music of all time." Here is a clip from a live performance including a dramatic reading from a key scene in the novel:
© Amanda Pape - 2015
[This book was borrowed from and returned to the cruise ship library.]