Researching Emilia

 

I’m currently doing revisions in my first novel, Shadow of the Portico, and I’m excited about reexamining a character from my sixteenth century timeline.

Emilia Canigiani is the daughter of a silk manufacturer, past her prime and living in a convent, when her family is almost completely wiped out in the plague that hit Bologna in 1576. Her grandmother decides Emilia needs to give up her vows and reenter the world and marry. While her grandmother and cousin try to find a suitable match for her, Emilia accidentally falls in love with someone who should have been suitable, except… he wasn’t.

Saint Catherine of Bologna with Three Donors, painted c. 1480. Santa Caterina de’Vigri was the founder of the Corpus Domini convent for Poor Clares in Bologna.

Sixteenth century northern Italy wasn’t exactly my area of expertise as an historian, but . it’s an intriguing subject. And while I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about life inside convents, I have had much to learn about some of the more subtle attitudes held by these women.

Like, how would a long-cloistered woman entering her late twenties, who had a religious vocation and was quite contented with being a nun, deal with this abrupt change in plans?

Since I only had a chapter to examine Emilia’s life as a nun, I kept my research fairly basic on the matter, making sure my details were correct. (What color was her habit? How did she spend her time? What did her cell look like?)

But I didn’t look at the underlying attitudes that would have surrounded her and perhaps influenced her actions even after she left the cloister. What of the women who didn’t choose this religious vocation? Women who were placed in a convent because the dowry was cheaper to marry Christ than a man? Would they envy Emilia’s escape from this prison of sorts? Would they resent her, especially since she didn’t want to escape? How would Emilia look back at that experience, and how would it mold her future?

To get a better feel for all that, I’m currently reading Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy by Craig A. Monson. Despite it’s rather sensational title and even more tabloid-invoking cover, this book highlights what amounts to rather small acts of rebellion against some of the stricter aspects of being a nun. Things like polyphonic singing were definitely frowned upon, for instance.

I hope to do a longer review later, but for now, I’m going to enjoy spending a week or two in my Chapter Five research, and hope that in a few words, I can convey the subtle meaning behind the sidelong glances that Emilia receives while awaiting her exclaustration from the Corpus Domini convent.

Perhaps the best part of doing historical research is that having a deeper understanding of how women coped with these circumstances will allow me to round out the character of Emilia much better. Even though she is content with her life in the convent, it will be fascinating to see how I can subtly use the women around her to influence her story, even long after she is gone from Corpus Domini.

 

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Filed under Chatting with the Readers, History

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