On sacred female Renaissance spaces – and a review of Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts

One of the modules I am teaching this semester is called Women in the Italian Renaissance: Art and History, so for the reviews section of this blog, I have a particular interest in historical novels set in Renaissance Italy. Actually, I often recommend reading historical novels to students, and encourage them to put themselves into a historical ‘bubble’ as in many ways, historians and novelists are not really poles apart from each other in their desire to make the past come to life. For a good historical novel, the author needs to research carefully in order to create believable settings, and where they might use that research to support a fictional story, I might use that research to search for traces of actual people. Not that dissimilar at all in its aims, especially as most readers are perfectly aware of where history morphs into fiction, and when boundaries between real and imagined blur.

Sarah Dunant, as an author of historical fiction, belongs for me into the very elite of that genre, in the company of Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, C.J. Sansom etc of authors who are so successful at blending the fictional and the historical that just occasionally, glimpses of the imagined may well capture the historical. And for my Renaissance Women module, it is actually tremendous fun to be able to have recourse to the triptych of Sarah Dunant’s early Renaissance novels ( The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts). The three books, which focus in turn on marriage, prostitution and religious life and enclosure  each engage with one of the possible alternative moments of a woman’s lifecycle, charting three  possible ‘options’ for her feisty heroines. All three of her heroines are at a cross roads, moving from young girl to adult woman, and seeking a place in a patriarchal, closely regulated, tightly legislated society where there were few spaces a woman could call her own. This theme of a woman’s physical and psychological space links the three books together, but I’d like to emphasise that all three books stand equally well on their own.

20140320-195548.jpgMy exploration of Dunant’s writing starts with the final book in this triptych of writings devoted to Renaissance women, Sacred Hearts. Originally published in 2009, there were quite a few – largely positive- reviews published, but what I want to do is something a bit different, and that is look behind Dunant’s story line and pull out some of the historical threads of her narrative. For the story will repay such a treatment- Dunant has done her research well, and has arguably succeeded in penning an international bestseller because the fictional world she creates is very closely mapped on to historical reality, which allows her to create believable characters. For

For example, Donna Leon’s review in The Guardian focussed closely both on parallels between Dunant’s stody line and that of George Orwell’s 1984, but also introduced a very interesting reading of the significance of the central charcater’s body as a battle field for competing ideologies. Claire Colvin’s review for The Independent though emphasises the more claustrophobic elements of the story, drawing out the passages that deal with anorexia as examples of Dunant’s craft. Amanda Craig reviewed the novel for The Telegraph and Brigitte Week’s review in The Washington Post is the one to end up with, as it contains both plot spoilers but also succeeds in really capturing the narrative tensions that underpins the tale of two women, the novice Serafina and the dispensary sister Zuana.

For a flavour of the narrative, please do take a look at the published reviews. The reviews succeed beautifully in getting across a sense of how Dunant is offering her reader the compelling and beautifully crafted story of a novice, Serafina, who enters an enclosed community of Benedictine nuns very much against her will. We- like Serafina- catch a glimpse of the daily workings of the fictional convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara, by meeting some of the sixty nuns making up the community (including key officers such as the abbess and novice mistress, as well as the sister in charge of the choir and the sister looking after the dispensary), and we also get an introduction to life behind the convent’s forbidding walls. We quickly get a sense that these formidable walls are as much about keeping unwilling nuns inside their confines as about deterring intruders from coming in. The final element added is a sense of time- or rather a loss of time- with the Benedictines’ Order of Offices, from Matins to Lauds, providing rhythm and structure to the nuns’ days.
Dunant introduces us first to the novice’s cell: sparsely furnished, devoid of material comforts, and an isolated space oddly situated between public and private. Private in the sense that the space is solely occupied by one nun, yet public in the way that other nuns have access not just to the space but to the possessions within it. In the case of Serafina’s (unwilling) entry into the convent, her cell repeatedly acts as her prison, and she only imposes some of her personality on to it when she opens her cassone and takes some of her belongings out. These, unlike her surroundings are soft, domestic and immensely colourful; where the communal structures surrounding the novice emphasise a loss of individuality, Serafina’s possessions underline her difference, and ultimately the mismatch between her aspirations and her forced vocation.
The second space we are introduced to is Zuana’s domain of the dispensary, a space surprisingly secular, and also unexpectedly intellectual. A space that is gendered male, and redolent of Zuana’s independence of mind. Her narrative role is that of a Janus figure, providing understanding for the distress of a forced entrant on the one hand, and signalling the opportunities of education, independence and autonomy that the all-female community of a convent may afford a woman. Zuana, an unwilling entrant into the convent herself, found refuge there after the death of her scholarly father, and it is Zuana who has grown into the role of the convent’s healer. The need of the convent for a female healer is introduced in the very first pages which are taken up with a reference to a sister suffering from a severe internal disease; Zuana can examine the ailing sister, but has no frame of reference for establishing whether the disease is intestinal or linked to the woman’s reproductive organs. Because she does not know, she can’t succeed in healing, and finds herself confined now just within the walls of her convent, but limited in her ability to learn and understand. Zuana’s very intellect and education showcase both what is possible, but also what is not.
Zuana is positioned between the two extremes of female religious piety: in Madonna Chiara, the beautiful, powerful and charismatic abbess we meet a sophisticated noblewoman bred to lead a convent, whereas Suora Umiliana, the novice mistress, entered the convent through a deeply felt vocation at the height of the impact of the so-called ‘living saints’ in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. Devotion clashes with pious pragmatism, and the power struggle between Chiara and Umiliana is fought over possession of Serafina, yet ultimately it is Zuana’s enlightened rationalism that decides the girl’s fate. The different stages of the story play out in the different spaces of the convent, from the seclusion of an individual cell to the refectory, from the semi-public parlour to the publicly accessible space of the convent’s church, from the cloisters to the convent’s gardens.
Dunant should be congratulated on making such good use of these Renaissance spaces; I particularly like the glimpses of the church, with beautiful intarsia choir stalls, Quattrocento frescoes and and Trecento crucifix, but we only get partial glimpses of the riches of this Renaissance church. For these glimpses, she draws on superb sources, notably Kate Lowe’s writings, and I think again that part of why I like the story so much is that we can immerse ourselves in a believable environment, but one both changing and under threat following the conclusion of the Council of Trent in December 1563, with its parallel discussions of a decree on the use of sacred art and a decree on sacred female spaces discussed in conjunction. In the novel, art can both calm and excite the imagination of the women, and the argument made so powerfully here is that art is a means to control as well as to empower, depending on your point of view. Certainly, as any student on my module will know, place, space and ‘stuff’ matters as they determine and condition behaviour, and certainly, my students know that physical space is as important as psychological space for creating and expressing identity, and for seeing this enacted out, Sarah Dunant’s story is worth a read any time.


Anabel Thomas, Art and Piety in the Female Religious Communities of Renaissance Italy: Iconography, Space, and the Religious Woman’s Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2003

K.J.P. Lowe, Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy, Cambridge University Press, 2003


Bell, Rudolph M., Holy Anorexia , University of Chicago Press, 1983

Brown, Judith C, Immodest Act: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Oxford University Press, 1986

Bynum Walker, Carolyn, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the religious significance of food to medieval women, University of California Press, 1987

Hills, Helen, Invisible City: Architecture in Devotion in 17th Century Neapolitan Convents, Oxford University Press, 2004

Laven, Mary, Virgins of Venice, Viking Press, 2002

Monson, Craig A, Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent, University of California Press, 1995

Sperling, Jutta Gisela, Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice, University of Chicago Press, 1999




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