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Alessandra Giliani
Italian anatomist, serving as the first woman prosector, or preparer of dissections for anatomical study

A tower in San Giovanni in Persiceto, Alessandra Giliani's birthplace


Abelard and Heloise

Medieval Book Reviews !
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Featured Interview
Courtesy from Book Illuminations:

Barbara Quick

Author Biography:
Award-winning novelist Barbara Quick learned Italian to do the research for her two historical novels set in Italy, Vivaldi's Virgins (published in 2007: now translated into 14 languages) and A Golden Web. An avid traveler, she spent two different field seasons in arctic Alaska to research her first novel, the Discover Prize–winning Northern Edge (HarperCollins 1990). She has written for the New York Times Book Review, Ms. magazine, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Newsweek.

Barbara Quick started her writing life in Southern California, where she frequently cut school to write poetry and cultivate an organic vegetable garden. A graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, majoring in English and French, she worked on her pre-first novel while living in a tower cottage in rural County Cork, Ireland.

Barbara can speak, with varying degrees of proficiency, French, Italian, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and a little Hungarian.   This year, Barbara began studying the viola. Her motto is, "Better late than never!"   Because she loves flowers and having bouquets around the house, she tries to keep a picking garden in bloom for as much of the year as possible.  Cooking is also a major enthusiasm. Barbara specializes in Northern Italian and Southern French cuisine, with an emphasis on improvisation.

Merri: Barbara, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for readers.  I read and loved VIVALDI'S VIRGINS.  I was particularly struck by the poetic use of language in that novel.  As a medieval enthusiast, I secretly hoped you would choose the Middle Ages as a time period for a novel.  I was thrilled when I discovered that A GOLDEN WEB took place in Medieval Italy!  When I read A GOLDEN WEB, I was struck by how well you integrated the time period into your novel while still writing a novel to speak to modern readers.  Without further ado, let's begin.

What inspired you to write A GOLDEN WEB?

Barbara Quick:
My last novel gave me the opportunity to tell the world about a brilliant and talented young woman who had been, up until the publication of my book, a mere footnote in obscure musical histories. Researching and writing VIVALDI'S VIRGINS was such a satisfying experience. Sharing the story with wonderful readers like you, Merri, has made all the uncertainties associated with being a writer seem altogether worthwhile--especially now that the novel has been translated into 14 languages.

When the book was out of my hands, in production at HarperCollins, I found myself asking, how many other such 'lost girls' are there, stranded in the shoals of history and waiting to be rediscovered? I realized that there must be hundreds--even thousands of them.

I suddenly felt that perhaps I could find and rescue some more of these lost girls: that I could be a sort of tug-boat that gets them out into open water, where they can raise their sails and catch the wind.
History has a tradition of forgetting the brilliant and talented females who lived and worked contemporaneously with the men whose lives have been so lovingly and painstakingly chronicled by historians. Really intelligent people have been all too willing to believe that creative brilliance was, somehow, the exclusive province of men.

There are even some people today who persist in this belief, almost as a kind of habit. We look through an encyclopedia and think nothing of it that there are almost no women there on the pages!

This gap--this injustice--is what inspired me to plunge into the past again, to reach my hands out in the darkness, and see who grabbed hold of me. This time, it was Alessandra Giliani.

Merri: How did you discover references to this real historical woman and what made you see her story needed to be told?

Barbara Quick: There's controversy, in the circle of academics who study the history of medicine, about whether Alessandra Giliani actually lived. Was there a real girl, born in the early 14th century in Persiceto, who made a major anatomical discovery while working for Mondino de' Liuzzi?

One article I found in Italy suggested that a chronicler working for wealthy patrons in the 18th century made up Alessandra's story as a way to flatter the locals in the place where she is said to have been born and raised, San Giovanni in Persiceto.

The author of the article suggested that this chronicler "borrowed" the story of an 18th century female anatomist who lived in Bologna (even though the story of that anatomist is quite different from Alessandra's story). He poo-pooed the idea that manuscript illuminations depict Alessandra, or any girl, assisting Mondino. Men wore their hair long back then, he insisted.

But those illuminations show not just the hair but also the face and body of a young female working as Mondino de' Liuzzi's prosector--at least it seems so to me!

I wasn't able to find any reference to Alessandra in the 14th century archives I consulted. But the head librarian in Persiceto, a distinguished scholar herself, told me that what Alessandra did was such an affront to the social mores of the time that all records of her--and even her family--could have well been destroyed by the Church.

To me, this mystery makes the story even more intriguing.

While I was doing my research and writing the novel, I never for a moment thought that Alessandra might be anything other than a real girl. She felt real in the same way that Anna Maria dal Violin seemed utterly real to me while I was writing VIVALDI'S VIRGINS.

In both cases, I learned as much as I could about the history and culture surrounding their lives. These historical facts provided the settings for both novels, and dictated both their limits and possibilities--it's important to me to be historically accurate.

But the stories themselves--the characters and their interactions, the words they spoke and the hopes they harbored--all of that came from another place, a dark, mysterious place, which is both inside and outside me, in the realm of what I guess is usually called the collective unconscious.

There was a mystical component to writing this novel, in that the story seemed to write itself: it was as if I were remembering the story rather than creating it. I heard the characters speaking. I felt Alessandra's spirit. I felt her desire to be known and remembered.

Maybe in feeling what I felt about Alessandra, I was feeling something that is true--and has been true throughout history--for all the girls and women in the world whose work and thoughts, ambitions and passions have been deemed to have no lasting value.

How did you research your characters?

Barbara Quick: I went to Bologna to begin my research while my book contract was still being drafted at HarperCollins. I spent three weeks there--and one of the most startling discoveries I made, right off the bat, was how very long ago the 1300s were! Mostly, they've been all covered up by subsequent eras of history. The architecture is mostly gone, even in the historical center of Bologna, covered up by the Renaissance and Baroque periods. I had to go underground--literally, in crypts and sewers--to look at whatever traces of the 14th century are still extant.

Merri: What discoveries did you make?  How did the research affect you?

Barbara Quick: I felt like I was on a solitary treasure hunt, the entire time I was in Bologna. I walked for hours and hours every day on those cobbled streets and even along a pilgrimage road. When I had too many blisters to walk any more, I borrowed a bicycle from the sweet little hotel where I stayed--the Hotel Porta San Mamolo--and rode it everywhere, without a helmet, I'm afraid. Greater Bologna is an intensely urban environment, with buses and motorcycles, where, back home, I never would have thought about riding a bike. But I was on a mission--and I had blisters! When I wasn't searching for some archive, plaque, or painting, I was in the pharmacies, looking for a better blister remedy!

The people who owned the hotel were so sweet to me! I'd return to my room exhausted after a long day of research in various archives and museums from one end of the town to the other. There would be a knock at the door--and there was a little boy, sent up by the concierge with a tray of tea and biscuits for me, and a vase of flowers from the hotel's garden. Roberto Condello, the owner of the hotel, would proudly introduce me to other guests as "Barbara Quick, our American writer."

Bologna was a far cry from Venice, where I really didn't make any friends, even though the director of the Vivaldi Institute was very nice to me. In Bologna I was befriended by several people who were unbelievably kind and helpful. It's a much friendlier city, in general, than Venice, where the locals have been pretty jaded by all the tourism, for hundreds of years.

For whatever reason, there isn't that much tourism in Bologna--even though the food there is spectacularly delicious, and the historical city center has a great deal of charm. I would go back in a heartbeat!

Alessandra Giliani lived in Medieval times, times quite different from our own and yet times when individuals faced similar challenges.  What similarities do you see facing young adults today?

Barbara Quick:  As the mother of a teenager, I can say with some authority that hormones are hormones--and being a teenager (or the parent of a teenager!) is a difficult thing, in any century. Parents have certain expectations--and young people have their own ideas (and are convinced--as I was, when I was that age--that their ideas are far more brilliant and original than those of their elders).

I was struck by the similarities between the advent of our own Information Age, brought into being by the Internet, and the sudden, radical need for books that was brought about by the advent of Europe's first universities--among them, the University of Bologna. Books were rare, precious things before that time. Unless you were very rich, if you wanted to learn something, you had to memorize it! People were much better at memorizing back then than we are...

The printing press had not yet been invented. But all these students and their professors needed books!

The University of Bologna in the early 1300s was quite a radical place, even more radical than UC Berkeley in the 1960s. It was run by the students, who hired and fired their professors and made a lot of the rules--and rebelled when they didn't like the rules.

It wasn't at all that much of a stretch to imagine Alessandra's predicament, wanting to be part of this radical world--and yet being banned from it, by virtue of her gender.

There are so many things that are equally unreasonable in our own time. Society has such confused--and confusing--attitudes about girls and sexuality, for instance. Look at the magazine ads, and the way young girls are depicted there, and you get one message. But then listen to what parents and teachers and psychologists are saying, and you get a very different message indeed!

Alessandra had the same problem: she knew certain truths about herself--but society refused to acknowledge them. She was brilliant and wanted to study. Society had its own ideas. Like the French say, "Plus ca change, plus ca ne change pas!"

How does her story speak to adult readers?

Barbara Quick: I didn't dumb anything down when I wrote A GOLDEN WEB, even though I knew it was to be published as a young adult novel. Really, I wrote just the sort of novel I like to read. Well, I always try to do that--because I don't think it's honest, artistically, to try to write for a particular audience. In the final rewrite, my editor, Rosemary Brosnan, encouraged me to put in a bit more romance for Alessandra--which I happily did. I wanted her life to be just as full and exciting and satisfying as possible, considering the historical circumstances.

As I know you know, as a Medieval expert, people lived very intensely back then. Their lives were much shorter, in general, than ours--but they lived them very fully, with great gusto and passion (especially in Italy!). They laughed and cried and loved with a grandeur and honesty that I think modern readers, whether adults or teenagers, can only admire.

The world was completely alive for them, too. Angels and demons were real for them, found everywhere. Magic and miracles were part of everyone's reality--respected, hoped for, and feared. Maybe it's those rich primary colors one sees in the illuminated manuscripts of the time--but I can't help feeling that the air was somehow clearer and the world was more brilliant and gorgeous than the world we live in today.

Merri: How does historical fiction speak to readers as compared to history?

Barbara Quick: Well, that's an easy one. History is, for most people, rather difficult to read. Historical fiction, if it's done well, is simply a pleasure. Instead of learning a lot of dry facts and dates, you get plunked down into a fully imagined world, where you learn by simply looking around you and listening and becoming involved in the lives and thoughts of people who seem completely real. It's the nearest thing we have to time travel (both for readers and writers!).

Merri: Barbara, I felt like I had been transported right into Medieval Italy when I read Alessandra's story.   I too enjoy historical fiction because it brings a period and especially the people alive.  Thank you for agreeing to the internview and sharing with with your readers.

Interview: Copyright Barbara Quick and Book Illuminations, Jan. 2010. All rights reserved.
Book clubs, libraries and other reading groups are free to use this interview as a supplement free of charge.  Book Illuminations would appreciate credit through use of a source citation.

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