by Barbara Quick
HarperCollins Publishers, 2007
The lyricism of Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick rivals the subject matter of this well written and researched novel about gifted orphans taught to play exquisite original music by the master Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. Quick wields the pen as a musical instrument. Take this view of the protagonist Anna Maria dal Violin seeing the Red Priest, as Vivaldi was nicknamed, on a day when all her peers had gone to visit relatives. Anna Maria, having no known family, was languishing at a cloister window on a floor closed off to men when her teacher appeared.
“A girl, unusually short of stature, is pulled and pinched like bread dough into a new shape and size. Thirteen years old, her eyes filled with tears, her heart filled with bitterness, she looks down from her solitary perch beneath the window at the unfamiliar sight of a priest climbing the forbidden stairs to the third floor.
I wondered if someone was dying. No men, not even priests, are allowed on the third floor unless a girl requires Last Rites…
When he got closer, I saw that it was the maestro. It is not unusual for him to ignore the rules. But he had never broken this particular rule before. He walked toward me, searching through a sheaf of papers he had tucked in his robes. ‘Ecco!’ he said, handing a page of music to me.”
Vivaldi had brought a newly composed sonata to his bereft student and dedicated it to her. Because this priest had a reputation for scandal, the reader might anticipate that the man was coming to ravish the girl. Quick has a knack for smartly turning reader expectations to the unanticipated and this combined with her sonorous language, heightens the pleasure of reading Vivaldi’s Virgins.
Set in Venice in the early 1700s, the main story line concerns the identity of a female child who was stuffed into the scaffetta (a niche in a church wall where unwanted infants were left) of Ospedale della Pietà (the orphans’ hospital). At eight years old, an extraordinarily young age, Anna Maria (based on an historic figure of the same name) is tapped for one of the fourteen positions of the coro (a chorus that includes singers and instrumentalists). She illuminates her joy in a letter to her unrevealed mother. “I felt myself fill with happiness like the water that fills the empty bucket when it is dropped into the well.” Part of the mystery and allure of this novel are these letters encouraged by one of Anna Maria’s caretakers and teachers, Sister Laura.
As with any youngster sensitive to what is happening around her and wishing to explore what is not yet known, Anna Maria takes risks like sneaking out of the cloister to experience an opera. Because this is the time of the Inquisition, breaking the rules can carry severe punishment. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Anna Maria and her friends do not let life pass them by, but rush out into the dark, past sleeping guards, to experience colorful events and characters—some of these individuals dressed in Carnival capes and masks, some conniving beggars, some incognito royalty, some dangerous henchmen of the Grand Inquisitor. This is a rite-of-passage journey cutting across economic class, gender and religious affiliation. Unlike Voltaire’s short novel, Quick’s novel is not satire but a portrait of 18th Century Venice that seems both historic and contemporary. Still, some of the punishments Anna Maria suffers from her keepers in the cloister call to mind how Charles Dickens handled his orphans. Quick deftly handles the historic details in a way that seems cinematic which may part of the reason the story of Vivaldi’s Virgins has contemporary feel to it.
The story also tracks a strong feminist theme in the same way as stories of Japanese geishas who, despite their interactions with men, lived in a woman dominated and controlled communal arrangement. In Vivaldi’s Venice as long as a girl musician remained cloistered, she could pursue her musical gift. Otherwise if she married, her talent was ripped ruthlessly from her. Both the geisha and the cloistered Venetian female musician had a version of independence within the society that usually constricted a woman’s freedom.
How Quick depicts passion for music is extraordinary. When Anna Maria’s childhood friend Silvio takes her to the Jewish Ghetto with the promise of learning something about herself, she is asked to play her violin in payment. Quick puts the reader inside the fourteen year old playing for the first time in public. “I had never played before, in such a manner, standing alone at the center of a throng of strangers.” When the crowd grows silent and Anna Maria fears they will start throwing stones at her, a young mother begins clapping encouraging and surprisingly her teacher Vivaldi appears “elbow to elbow with the Jews of Venezia.” Anna Maria reflects “I’ve learned since then the way to do one’s best in such a situation, uncompromised by all the attendant fears, is to pretend that one is playing for one beloved and trusted person who knows better than anyone else in the world how to hear the music. Only then will one give every note the proper measure of sweetness and feeling.” And for this adventure, completely misunderstood by her furious guardians, Anna Maria is deprived of her violin and sent to the hell of the laundry where she is forced to work with huge vats of splashing lye.
Vivaldi’s Virgins is a book that a reader will not want to put down once started. Those who love classical music, Italy and Venice, poetic language, and a story built on the mystery of identity will savor this book and then will reopen it to chapter 1 to begin it again. Here is a novel as appealing as Vivaldi’s beloved violin concerti The Four Seasons.