Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunantby Rick Price - Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The author of The Birth of Venus (see my review here) and In the Company of the Courtesan (see my review here), has set the story of her third novel about the Italian Renaissance in the Northern city of Ferrara. The story’s overall point questions and contradicts the labeling of this period as a “renaissance” for women, since the role and place of sixteenth-century Italian women were totally subordinate to men’s rules and whims, both in the private and the public domains.
While Dunant’s first two Italian novels created main characters who traveled or were often displaced in their lifetimes, the events of the present tale take place mainly inside the walls of the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara and properly convey the sense of claustrophobia felt by many of the cloistered nuns.
This convent, like others in many Italian cities of that time, was filled with noble women. Mainly the daughters and sisters of well-off families whose fathers and brothers likely could not or would not pay their dowries. While some of these women became sincerely religious and took genuine chastity vows, many just resigned themselves to a life they would not have chosen had they been able to. Others fought, usually in vain, against such fate.
Dunant chose to place her novel in the second half of the sixteenth century as this was when the more repressive rules dictated by the Council of Trent for cloistered women were beginning to be implemented in many cities. The story revolves around two characters representing two generations of women who had two different reactions to forced cloistered life. Serafina is a sixteen-year old who is forced into the nunnery as she is torn away from a passionate love relationship with her music teacher, who has promised to rescue her. She is, however, determined to escape the cloistered fate and follow her love at all costs. Suora Zuana is the middle-aged, educated nun who has accepted her convent life since it satisfies her love and interest in medicine through her job of running the convent dispensary. A compassionate and intelligent woman, Suora Zuana establishes a strong friendship with the young but recalcitrant novice.
Tumultuous convent politics, exacerbated by the nuns’ physical isolation and close living quarters, reflect some of the uncertain and troubling aspects of the world outside the convent during this period.
I enjoyed the story and Dunant’s writing. I found especially interesting Dunant’s description of the psychological and rhetorical games everyone in the convent plays in order to achieve personal power and objectives, as well as the information provided on herbal remedies and potions and the details of sixteenth-century convent life. I hope you will enjoy it!