Category Archives: History

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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B is for Bologna

I’d like to introduce you to the extraordinary and underappreciated city of Bologna… it’s pictured at the top of my page. It’s nicknamed La Rossa, the red. One can see why. It’s also called La Grossa, the fat, in homage to its fantastic food. Oh yeah. I’m so going there this summer, in homage to breaking my diet.

When I researched the Italian setting for my novel, Shadow of the Portico, I wanted to get away from the Big Three–Rome, Florence, and Venice. Originally, I was going to write about a young scholar, so I looked for a city with a university. Then I stumbled upon one that had a university that admitted women. Immediately piqued, I found that school, the University of Bologna, was also one of the oldest universities in Europe. Okay, Bologna it is!

Then Bologna went off and wrote my novel for me.

No, it wasn’t quite like that. It did inspire the title, though, with its miles of porticos, covered walkways where my character Niccolo tends to linger. The more I researched the city, the more its untold stories opened themselves up to me. Intriguing, interwoven, insightful stories.

One of the first things I learned about Bologna was that they suffered a plague in 1576 that took out a good chunk of its population. I was actually drawn to the rather familiar trope as a launching point for my story, and pretty soon I happily wiped out my character Emilia’s family.

Writers are a special kind of crazy, can I just say?

In the late sixteenth century, Bologna was part of the Papal States. Not quite independent, but not very good at being subservient to the Pope, either. Even when the Pope came from Bologna, as Gregory XIII did.

This is where we meet Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, a legal expert who made a name for himself at the Council of Trent. As Archbishop of Bologna, he wanted to see his home city become the model for the reforms that came out of that council, particularly with regard to how a Bishop should serve his city. As in, actually serve the city, and not just draw a paycheck from it.

Oh, but those good intentions and their pavings.


Cattedrale di San Pietro, the seat of the Archbishop of Bologna. The facade was remodeled in the seventeenth century, long after Cardinal Paleotti was no longer around to appreciate it. (Photo courtesy of


Bologna, with its fierce independence, wanted no part of this Tridentine reform, even one that would be ultimately good for the city. Nope, it wanted instead to promote its monstrous civic church, San Petronio, and as a stick-it-to-ya to Rome, wanted to build it bigger than St. Peter’s. The church also competed with the Bishop’s cathedral, San Pietro, which annoyed Cardinal Paleotti something fierce. I used this little rivalry in the book as a source of conflict and as a way to allow my characters to cleverly manipulate the situation to their own ends.

Writing political intrigue is even more fun than the plague, it turns out.


The unfinished facade San Petronio Basilica, a massive church built independently by the city of Bologna and source of irritation to the city’s Bishop, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti. (Photo courtesy of

So, I didn’t even make it to the University of Bologna in my novel. I decided instead to focus on church politics as a backdrop. Not the way I started this whole writing adventure, but Bologna proved to be its own adventure, one I could hardly ignore.

Bologna has named my second novel, too. The city’s third nickname, La Dotta, the scholar, was given because of its university. I have no doubt that my scholar Sarah, La Dotta herself, will find her way to there at some point.

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A Confluence of Passions

As an undergraduate, I double majored in history and English to fulfill two of my life’s passions, and now I’m finding that writing historical fiction has rather the same effect. Shadow of the Portico is partially set in early modern Italy and is the story of an exclaustrated nun and a well-born but unfortunate notary who have fallen in love–romance being another passion of mine.

As I approached this project, I found that while I had a good understanding of the larger context of sixteenth century Italy, I lacked more specific knowledge of the societal expectations for our noblewoman and notary. This is a dynamic time and location, and I certainly didn’t want to depend on general conceptions of the Renaissance found in my survey textbooks that focused on the fourteenth century in Florence.

I began my research by looking through social histories of early modern Northern Italy, trying as often as possible to situate information in Bologna in particular, giving consideration to the fact that northern Italian cities were reasonably autonomous and decentralized. This would have been easier had I chosen a more well-researched city like Florence or Venice, but unearthing Bologna’s unique color has been hugely rewarding.

As I read these social and cultural histories, I’ve discovered the historiographical methodology of microhistory. It reverses the idea that we study history through the lens of larger societal concerns and instead we look at case studies of specific people in specific locations with specific circumstances, and then look at society through that lens. This is precisely what the novelist does–we look at the stories of people, our characters, who must deal with their conflicts and grow as individuals.

I’m not new to microhistory, it turns out. Reading Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms was pretty standard fare for undergraduate medievalists, and indeed this book was instrumental in sparking my interest in heresies. However, I hadn’t made the connection with microhistory, even though this is one of the seminal works of this methodology. I now find myself that much more curious about implementing this approach in my research.

With that, one of the objectives of my blog is to further examine microhistory as a research method and apply it not only to my novel research, but also my interest in historical reenactment, in particular persona play for the Society for Creative Anachronism. It’s exciting for me to bring all these passions together and create original products in both fiction and nonfiction.

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