Sacred Hearts


Sacred Hearts, a novel by Sarah Dunant, takes place in the convent of Santa Caterina during 15th century Ferrara, Italy.  In the 15th century, many families placed their daughters in convents because they couldn’t afford the dowries needed in order to marry them into prestigious families.  Usually, the prettiest daughter would be chosen to marry while the other daughters would be placed into convents.  The girls did not have much choice in these matters, and they were placed into these convents against their wills.  They usually did not have a particular calling to the religious life, but instead grew into this religious life out of necessity because they had no chance of escape.  Oddly enough, the women in convents found that they had many rights and their voices were heard in convent politics.  They were the rulers of their own destinies, and had probably many more privileges than  married women who always had to defer to their husbands.  Within the walls of the convent, they created their own rules and held important positions.  They routinely had meetings where they voted on matters having to do with convent life.  The convents were democratic, with the abbess acting as the president.   Men were not allowed to make contact with the Sisters, except family members and then always with chaperones.  The only man allowed was the priest who would come to hear their confessions on a regular basis, and to say their Masses. 

Sacred Hearts centers around two main characters – a woman who has been in the convent for most of her life, and one who was just recently put there because her parents did not approve of a suitor she had taken up with.  Suora Zuana takes this young novice, Serafina, under her belt and nurses her back to health after Serafina decides that she doesn’t want to live “in jail” for the rest of her life and tries to fight her way out.  The two develop a warm relationship, and they both learn to respect and understand the other.  But Serafina is determined that she will get out of the convent one way or another.  The story, unfortunately, is not very riveting…it took me a long time to finish this book.  It does not grip your attention, and it was, in my opinion, very predictable.  I was surprised that this book ended up being the way it was since the author’s other books were actually very good and excellent portrayals of life during Renaissance Italy.  This, too, was a good portrayal of life within the convent during the Renaissance….but it was a tad boring 😦   Too bad!

5 responses »

  1. Thank you for this review! I have to say I adored “Birth of Venus” – actually read it on my first trip to Italy 5 years ago to visit a friend in Florence. I told her about some of the things I read about in the book, found they really existed (like the wheel at Ospedale degli Innocenti), and dragged her through the streets with my trusty guide book map to see them. I couldn’t get into “Company of the Courtesan,” but maybe after living in Florence for a while and getting ready to return, I may try again. As I walked the streets (you know what I mean) of Florence, my mental references were mostly from Sarah Dunant’s stories – and “The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga (about the Mud Angels – which I’m sure you’ve read!)

    • Hi Valerie – no, I have not read “The Sixteen Pleasures”!!! Is it good? I am always looking for new stories which take place in Italy!!! And, I am with you as far as using these historical fiction books as stepping stones to real history! When I was in Milan, after having read “Leonardo’s Swans”, I found out about Da Vinci’s fresco in the Castel Sforzesco (which I probably would never have known about) as well as other interesting tidbits of artistic information!!!
      I don’t remember too much about “In the Company of the Courtesan”, but I think I enjoyed it! Unfortunately, I had been warned about this one not being as good as the others, but I wanted to see for myself! Sadly, the reviews were correct
      😦 It’s not horrible, it’s just slow and predictable. And….there really isn’t any information about any places to visit, either !! I’m going to put your suggestion on my reading list. And what are the mud angels?

      • I remember “Sixteen Pleasures” being a good read. Mud Barbara – Angels were the art students/volunteers who came to Florence in 1966 when the Arno river flooded in Florence; their mission was to help save all the valuable art pieces, help restore and clean up after the flood. Many of them were moved up to Fiesole, from what I understand – higher ground – to work. I actually met a former Mud Angel this past spring at a ladies’ gathering in Florence; she cleaning up the National Library and remembers it was the only way her parents knew she was OK when they saw her on CBS news pushing mud out of the library. Her accounts of living in Italy before, during, and after the flood were quite interesting.

      • Wow, that is interesting. I remember visiting Florence right after the flood, but unfortunately I was too young to really know what was going on. But I remember my parents showing me the wall marks where the water had risen to in the Piazza della Signoria and how a lot of the statues had been ruined. I should read up on this – there are probably lots of interesting stories about this time in Florentine history. Thanks again for sharing 🙂

  2. Hi Barbara, the material arrived today. Unfortunately it is the wrong colorway, but it is close. The blue is missing out of the fabric. However, I can use it to have the upholsterer make armrests. The fabric is similar in overall color and I am very grateful to have it.
    Do you still have my e-mail address. Or can you send me your address or e-mail so that I can send you your platter.

    I want to thank you again for going to the trouble to find the fabric.


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