Sacred Hearts, By Sarah Dunant

Renaissance nuns and their passions

Reviewed,Clare Colvin
Wednesday 09 September 2009 00:00

Convents were the Italian equivalent of oubliettes for women of the upper classes during the Renaissance. Around half of all noble women in the city states of Italy became nuns, as the dowry for |a bride of Christ was much lower than those demanded by eligible males. Sarah Dunant has set the final novel of her Renaissance trilogy in a Ferrara convent in 1570, when the Counter-Reformation was embarking on repressive measures. She centres on the relationship between 16-year-old Serafina, an unwilling novice, and Suora |Zuana, the scholarly nun who runs the dispensary.

Serafina is dragged to the convent after falling in love with her music tutor and refusing to marry the man her rich Milanese family had lined up. Her vocal talent is as valued as the dowry she brings: the convent of Santa Caterina, a closed order of Benedictines, is famed for its choir of nuns. The rebellious girl refuses to sing until she realises she can use her voice as a means of escape.

Dunant’s research took her to a Ferrara convent where she participated in the daily offices, getting up at 2am for the Matins service – the brutal awakening is designed to make the soul more receptive to the divine presence. Perhaps we learn slightly too much of these offices, but the convent’s power structure is fascinating in the way it mirrors political life outside. Abbess Madonna Chiara adroitly upholds the convent’s permissive autonomy, while Suora Umiliana, the novice mistress, crusades for ever-stricter piety. Both dying Suora Magdalena, recipient of visions, and Serafina become pawns in this struggle.

Dunant’s great skill is in making the novel work on several levels. There is the detailed study of a |16th-century enclosed order with all its ills, including Umiliana’s encouragement of anorexia – starving the body to feed the soul. A romantic fairy-tale element draws on a love story that has inspired other writers along the way. Dunant |has come to know the Renaissance mind well, while not losing sight of the 21st-century reader.

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