Sacred Hearts

Sacred Hearts

by Sarah Dunant
3.4 67


$23.50 $25.00 Save 6% Current price is $23.5, Original price is $25. You Save 6%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Eligible for FREE SHIPPING


Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina in the Italian city of Ferrara noble women find space to pursue their lives under God's protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

The sixteen-year-old daughter of a noble family from Milan, Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant—young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl's cell to sedate her. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, who is old enough to be Serafina's mother.

As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena—with her history of visions and ecstasies—locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. As disorder and rebellion mount, it is the abbess's job to keep the convent stable while, outside its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to purge the Catholic Church and impose on the nunneries a regime of terrible oppression.

Sarah Dunant, the bestselling author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, brings this intricate Renaissance world compellingly to life. Amid Sacred Hearts is a rich, engrossing, multifaceted love story, encompassing the passions of the flesh, the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400063826
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/14/2009
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge, all three of which are available as Random House Trade Paperbacks. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.

From the Hardcover edition.


London, England

Date of Birth:

August 8, 1950

Place of Birth:

London, England


B.A., Cambridge University, 1973

Read an Excerpt

Sacred Hearts

A Novel
By Sarah Dunant

Random House Large Print

Copyright © 2009 Sarah Dunant
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780739326077

Chapter One

Before the screaming starts, the night silence of the convent is already alive with its own particular sounds.

In a downstairs cell, Suora Ysbeta’s lapdog, swaddled like a baby in satin cloth, is hunting in its dreams, muzzled grunts and growls marking the pleasure of each rabbit cornered. Ysbeta herself is also busy with the chase, her silver tray doubling as a mirror, her right hand poised as she closes a pair of tweezers over a stubborn white hair on her chin. She pulls sharply, the sting and the satisfaction of the release in the same short aah of breath.

Across the courtyard two young women, plump and soft-cheeked as children, lie together on a single pallet, entwined like kindling twigs, their faces so close they seem almost to be exchanging breaths, the one inhaling as the other lets go: in, out, in, out. There is a slight sweetness to the air—angelica, perhaps, or sweet mint—as if they have both eaten the same sugared cake or drunk from the same spiced wine cup. Whatever they have imbibed, it has left them both sleeping soundly, their contentment a low hum of pleasure in the room.

Suora Benedicta, meanwhile, can barely contain herself, there is so much music inside her head. Tonight it is a setting of the Gradual for the Feast ofthe Epiphany, the different voices like colored tapestry threads weaving in and over one another. Sometimes they move so fast she can barely chalk them down, this stream of white notes on her slate blackboard. There are nights when she doesn’t seem to sleep at all, or when the voices are so insistent she is sure she must be singing out loud with them. Still, no one admonishes her the next day, or wakes her if she slips into a sudden nap in the refectory. Her compositions bring honor and benefactors to the convent, and so her eccentricities are overlooked.

In contrast, young Suora Perseveranza is in thrall to the music of suffering. A single tallow candle spits shadows across her cell. Her shift is so thin she can feel the winter damp as she leans back against the stone wall. She pulls the cloth up over her calves and thighs, then more carefully across her stomach, letting out a series of fluttering moans as the material sticks and catches on the open wounds underneath. She stops, breathing fast once or twice to still herself, then tugs harder where she meets resistance, until the half-formed skin tears and lifts off with the cloth. The candlelight reveals a leather belt nipped around her waist, a series of short nails on the inside, a few so deeply embedded in the flesh beneath that all that can be seen are the crusted swollen wounds where leather and skin have fused together. Slowly, deliberately, she presses on one of the studs. Her hand jumps back involuntarily, a cry bursting out of her, but there is an exhilaration to the sound, a challenge to herself as her fingers go back again.

She keeps her gaze fixed on the wall ahead, where the guttering light picks out a carved wooden crucifix: Christ, young, alive, His muscles running through the grain as His body strains forward against the nails, His face etched with sorrow. She stares at Him, her own body trembling, tears wet on her cheeks, her eyes bright. Wood, iron, leather, flesh. Her world is contained in this moment. She is within His suffering; He is within hers. She is not alone. Pain has become pleasure. She presses the stud again and her breath comes out in a long satisfying growl, almost an animal sound, consumed and consuming.

In the next-door cell, Suora Umiliana’s fingers pause briefly over her chattering rosary beads. The sound of the young sister’s devotion is like the taste of honey in her mouth. When she was younger she too had sought God through open wounds, but now as novice mistress it is her duty to put the spiritual well-being of others before her own. She bows her head and returns to her beads.


in her cell above the infirmary, Suora Zuana, Santa Caterina’s dispensary mistress, is busy with her own kind of prayer. She sits bent over Brunfels’s great book of herbs, her forehead creased in concentration. Next to her is a recently finished sketch of a geranium plant, the leaves of which have proved effective at stanching cuts and flesh wounds—one of the younger nuns has started passing clots of blood, and she is searching for a compound to stop a wound she cannot see.

Perseveranza’s moans echo along the upper cloister corridor. Last summer, when the heat brought the beginnings of infection to the wounds and those who sat next to the young nun in chapel complained about the smell, the abbess had sent her to the dispensary for treatment. Zuana had washed and dressed the angry lesions as best she could and given her ointment to reduce the swelling. There is nothing more she can do. While it is possible that Perseveranza might eventually poison herself with some deeper infection, she is healthy enough otherwise, and from what Zuana knows of the way the body works she doesn’t think this will happen. The world is full of stories of men and women who live with such mutilations for years, and while Perseveranza might talk fondly enough of death, it is clear that she gains too much joy from her suffering to want to end it prematurely.

Zuana herself doesn’t share this passion for self-mortification. Before she came to the convent she had lived for many years as the only child of a professor of medicine. His very reason for being alive had been to explore the power of nature to heal the body, and she cannot remember a moment in her life when she didn’t share his fervor. She would have made a fine doctor or teacher like him, had such a thing been possible. As it is, she was fortunate that after his death his name and his estate were good enough to buy her a cell in the convent of Santa Caterina, where so many noblewomen of Ferrara find space to pursue their own ways to live inside God’s protection.

Still, any convent, however well adjusted, trembles a little when it takes in one who really does not want to be there.


zuana looks up from her table. The sobbing coming from the recently arrived novice’s cell is now too loud to be ignored. What started as ordinary tears has grown into angry howls. As dispensary mistress it is Zuana’s job, should things become difficult, to settle any newcomer by means of a sleeping potion. She turns over the hourglass. The draft is already mixed and ready in the dispensary. The only question is how long she should wait.

It is a delicate business, judging the depth of a novice’s distress. A certain level of upset is only natural: once the feasting is over and the family has left, the great doors bolted behind them, even the most devout of young women can suffer a rush of panic when faced with the solitude and silence of the closed cell.

Those with relatives inside are the easiest to settle. Most of them have cut their teeth on convent cakes and biscuits, so pampered and fussed over through years of visiting that the cloister is already a second home. If—as it might—the day itself unleashes a flurry of exhausted tears, there is always an aunt, sister, or cousin on hand to cajole or comfort them.

For others, who might have harbored dreams of a more flesh-and-blood bridegroom or left a favorite brother or doting mother, the tears are as much a mourning for the past as fear of the future. The sisters in charge treat them gently as they clamber out of dresses and petticoats, shivering from nerves rather than cold, their naked arms raised high in the air in readiness for the shift. But all the care in the world cannot disguise the loss of freedom, and though some might later substitute silk for serge (such fashionable transgressions are ignored rather than allowed), that first night girls with soft skin and no proclivity for penance can be driven mad by the itch and the scratch. These tears have an edge of self-pity to them, and it is better to cry them now, for they can become a slow poison if left to fester.

Eventually the storm will blow itself out and the convent return to sleep. The watch sister will patrol the corridors, keeping tally of the time until Matins, some two hours after midnight, at which point she will pass through the great cloister in the dark, knocking on each door in turn but missing that of the latest arrival. It is a custom in Santa Caterina to allow the newcomer to spend her first night undisturbed, so the next day will find her refreshed and better prepared to enter her new life.

Tonight, however, no one will do much sleeping.

In the bottom of the hourglass the hill of sand is almost complete, and the wailing has grown so violent that Zuana feels it in her stomach as well as her head—as if a wayward troop of devils has forced its way inside the girl’s cell and is even now winding her intestines on a spit. In their dormitory, the young boarders will be waking in terror. The hours between Compline and Matins mark the longest sleep of the night, and any disturbance now will make the convent bleary-eyed and foul-tempered tomorrow. In between the screams, Zuana registers a cracked voice rising up in tuneless song from the infirmary. Night fevers conjure up all manner of visions among the ill, not all of them holy, and it will not help to have the crazed and the sickly joining in the chorus.

Zuana leaves her cell swiftly, her feet knowing the way better than her eyes. As she moves down the stairs into the main cloister and enters the great courtyard, she is held for a second, as she often is, by its sheer beauty. From the moment she first stood here, sixteen years ago, the walls around threatening to crush her, it has offered a space for peace and dreams. By day the air is so still it seems as if time itself has stopped, while in the dark you can almost hear the rush of angels’ wings behind you. Not tonight, though. Tonight the stone well in the middle looms up like a gray ship in a sea of black, the sound of the girl’s sobbing a wild wind echoing around it. It reminds her of the story her father used to tell of the time he sailed to the East Indies to collect plant specimens and how they found a merchant boat abandoned in steamy waters, the only sign of life the screeching of a starving parrot left on board. “Just imagine, carissima. If only we could have understood that bird’s language, what secrets might it have revealed?”

Unlike him, Zuana has never seen the ocean, and the only siren voices she knows are those of soaring sopranos in chapel or wailing women in the night. Or the yelping of noisy dogs—like the one now yapping in Suora Ysbeta’s cell, a small matted ball of hair and bad smells with teeth sharp enough to bite through its night muzzle and join in the drama. Yes, it is time for the sleeping draft.

The air in the infirmary is thick with tallow-candle smoke and the rosemary fumigant that she keeps burning constantly to counteract the stench of illness. She passes the young choir sister crippled by her bleeding insides, her body curled in over itself, eyes tight shut in a way that speaks of prayer rather than sleep. In the remaining beds the other sisters are as old as they are ill, their lungs filled with winter damp, so they bubble and rasp as they breathe. Most of them are deaf to anything but the voices of angels, though not above competing as to whose choir is the sweetest.

“Oh, sweet Jesus! It is coming. Save us all.”

While Suora Clementia’s ears are still sharp enough to make out the pad of a cat’s paw, her mind is so clouded that she might read it as the footfall of the devil’s messenger or the first sign of the Second Coming.


“Hear the screaming! Hear the screaming!” The old woman is bolt upright in the last bed, her arms flapping as if to beat off some invisible attack. “The graves are opening. We will all be consumed.”

Zuana catches her hands and pulls them down onto the sheets, holding them still while she waits for the nun to register her presence. In the Great Silence that runs from Compline until daybreak, the ill and the mad will be forgiven for breaking the rule but others risk grave penance for any squandered speech.


Across the courtyard another howl rises up, followed by a crash and a splintering of wood. Zuana pushes the old nun gently back down toward the bed, settling her as best she can. The tang of fresh urine lifts off the sheet. It can wait until morning. The servant sisters will be gentler if they have had some sleep.

Taking the night-light, she moves swiftly into the dispensary, which lies behind a door at the far end of the infirmary. On the wall in front of her, pots, vials, and bottles dance in rhythm to the flickering flame. She knows each and every one of them; this room is her home, more familiar to her even than her cell. She takes a glass vial from a drawer and, after a second’s hesitation, reaches for a bottle from the second shelf, uncorks it, and adds some further drops of syrup. Any novice who breaks furniture as well as silence will need a strong soporific.

From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Dunant. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. Imagine you were Serafina’s father. What would influence your decision to send your daughter to a convent? Do you think he was being cruel or practical?

2. Nuns—from Hildegard of Bingen to Maria in The Sound of Music—have always been the subject of huge fascination to many people. What do you think makes them so interesting?

3. Do you see the sisters of Santa Caterina as prisoners confined within the convent walls or, given the harsh reality of life outside for women, do you believe they in fact enjoyed more freedom and creativity than women on the outside? If you were a woman living then and could choose to live inside or out, which choice would you make?

4. Serafina suffers from holy anorexia. Many people today think of eating disorders as a product of contemporary fashion,
celebrity, and pop culture, but what can holy anorexia teach us about the modern disease?

5. Which of the characters do you think suffer in the restrictive environment and which of them thrive and learn to manipulate the system? How do you think you would have responded if placed in such an environment?

6. Why do you think Dunant chose to set her story entirely within the convent’s walls? How would the novel have been different had she written more about the world outside them?

7. With Sacred Hearts, Dunant completes what she’s called her Renaissance trilogy, which includes her two previous novels, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan. As a trilogy, they paint the possible lives of ordinary women in the Renaissance. Why do you think the author set out to do this?

8. The relationship between Suora Zuana and Serafina is an interesting and complex one. What is it about Serafina that attracts Zuana’s attentions and affection? And what is it about Zuana that appeals to Serafina?

9. The convent of Santa Caterina is filled with an intriguing variety of nuns, from the powerful abbess Madonna Chiara, the ancient visionary Suora Magdalena, dispensary mistress Suora Zuana, and the devout and ambitious novice mistress Suora Umiliana. Which of these sisters interested you the most? Which ones did you think seemed the most contemporary, the most like women you might know yourself ?

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Sacred Hearts 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 67 reviews.
Animal-Lover More than 1 year ago
An inspiring, powerful, & moving tale of the strength of women's compassion in a society where they are downtrodden & treated like property. Along the way there is danger, intrigue, & life-threatening situations. If you love medieval era fiction, this is for you. If you love Philippa Gregory or Jeanne Kalogridis, this is a must read.
CathyB More than 1 year ago
Sacred Hearts is the latest novel by Sarah Dunant. Set in a convent in Renaissance Italy, Ms. Dunant paints a revealing picture of a nun's life during the latter half of the sixteenth century. In a time when young women were subject to the will of their fathers, one's options were limited. Either you married who was selected for you or you joined a convent - neither choice is very appealing. ----- The novel revolves around Serafina, a defiant young lady who is forced into religious servitude, and Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress who was also an unwilling addition to convent life. From the start of Serafina's incarceration, the relationship that develops between these two women is one of trust, betrayal and survival. We watch as they navigate through religious dogma and convent politics. Ms. Dunant has brought them to life - we cannot help but feel for them through their struggles and triumphs, when their hopes are dashed, when they give up their dreams, when they accept their fate, .... I know that I am grateful that I did not live in during that time period. ----- The writing kept me interested and the plot is filled with drama and intrigue. I was hooked from the beginning and wanted to know what would happen next to these two women. I highly recommend to those who have read previous works of Sarah Dunant and to those who like historical fiction. ----- Thank you to LibraryThing and Random House for this ARE.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
What does a family do when they have more daughters than money for marriage dowries? What do they do when their daughter is born with a disfiguring defect, or has a pitted face from smallpox? What do they do when their defiant daughter decides she will choose her own lover? What does a lone daughter do when her life of silently helping her father in his business is shattered because he dies and she is not allowed to work on her own? Well in 1500's Italy, these girls find themselves in a Convent of Sisters. SACRED HEARTS by Sarah Dunant tells a varied and passionate story of these many women as they learn to live and survive within their forced new home. There is no way out until death comes, but that does not mean that the women do not think of many ways to work around the system. There are many characters in this book that draw our attention, but my two favorite were rebellious Sarafina with the beautiful voice who wants only to sing for her lover who appreciates her music to his very soul, and Suora Zuana who is the dispensary mistress and befriends Sarafina. Suora Zuana has been in the convent for many years and has settled into her own healing life because she has been able to practice her art with herbs and drafts which she learned from her father before his untimely death. This woman's story is filled with devotion, love, determination, and strong wills as the women work and dispute together trying to find their place in a world of spiritual beliefs, and imprisonment of women with no political powers. How determination and brainpower helps one woman determine her own fate is the essential power of this story. Love and the medicinal power of natural plants adds a great deal to this story and brings to mind Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfeal, but knowing that the Sister has not the roaming power of a Brother adds an extra dimension to this story. A different part of the world for women in 16th Century Italy makes for a fascinating story. Whether you are a believer or studier of women, you will find this book well suited to your needs and interest.
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
Hundreds of years ago, a convent was often considered a peaceful refuge for women, particularly widows with no place else to go, and a blessed relief for them if their husbands had been abusive. Within the convent there was discipline, but also considerable autonomy as the women governed decisions concerning daily life. Younger women forced into convents due to an insufficient dowry were not always so happy, as they contemplated a life sentence of being cut off from the world. In this novel, Serafina is such a one. Entering a 16th-century Italian convent under duress and sick with love for a man her family considers unsuitable, she rages against her fate, as many another has done to no avail. Clever, beautiful, and wily, Serafina manages to throw the convent into turmoil as her moods swing in all directions - fury, excessive piety, sullen cooperation, and back again. Unmanageable as she is, many within the sisterhood, from the abbess to the novice mistress, view her as an opportunity, and each woman has her own agenda. This plays out in a completely absorbing story, beautifully written, with a delicious ending.
JConMartin More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for terrific characterization and vivid settings, you will love this novel of convent life in 1500s Italy. If you're looking for plot-driven or formula stories, this isn't one. Just looking at Ms. Dunnant's Bibliography will tell you how much time she spent digging into the history of the time. Exquisite detail. Highly recommended. James Conroyd Martin Author of Push Not the River & Against a Crimson Sky
VALADY More than 1 year ago
I bought this after hearing the NPR interview. I was mostly interested in how she tied in the convent history to a plausible story. Dunant did a great job of tying her research into a story that could have happened. I was entertained while learning about where the less desirable daughters went, convents, medicine and mores of the time.
KathyOVA More than 1 year ago
This book is a gem. Thirsty for historical fiction set in medieval Italy after I returned from a recent trip there, I had read another terrific book written by Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus), but then found I enjoyed Sacred Hearts even more. This dramatic story set within the cloistered but not-so-reserved world of nuns was beautifully told, and depicted the social world of that era in Italy, as well as the world of the convent, which differed in ways large & small from convents of our era. Ms. Dunant does wonderful character studies within her fiction, and I'm convinced, after reading this, understands borderline personality disorder. I am looking forward to reading more from her.
J_Reader_1 More than 1 year ago
I've loved Sarah Dunant's other two historical fiction novels (In The Company of the Courtesan and The Birth of Venus), and looked forward to reading this book. It took a little while for me to get into - the story almost completely takes place inside the walls of a convent. But once you get into it (and past some of the cliches), it really is an enjoyable read. Definitely makes you thrilled to live in the present - not one of those books that will make you yearn for the "good old days." In fact, it's horrifying in its depiction of women in the 1500s for two reasons - 1) that women could only have a shred of independence and self-governance within the walls of a nunnery; and 2)that their "freedom" was subject to the whims of the ruling church hierarchy. All in all, a good read, just be prepared to take a few pages to warm up to the characters.
TheBookLife 11 months ago
Heartbreaking! "Still, any convent, however well adjusted, trembles a little when it takes in one who really does not want to be there." Set in 16th century Italy, families that couldn't afford to marry off a daughter would send them to convents; often against their will. This story is about a 16 year old who is forced into the convent and she brings rage and rebellion with her. The author, Sarah Dunant, writes so beautiful and her characters certainly don't lack any depth. However, I'm not a religious person myself so I found myself skipping over parts of prayer, which as you can imagine for a religious book, is a lot of it. It was eye opening at life within the convent and my heart broke at the staggering amount of women that were forced into this unwanted life.
MsDollie More than 1 year ago
Every novel I have read by Sarah Durant has been excellent. Sacred Hearts was no exception. The author excels at characters that enable the reader to experience their thoughts and emotions ... her novels focus on human motivation, thoughts, hopes and fears , not merely a retelling of historical events. I read late into the night 2-3 nights in succession as the characters experienced the political intrigue and religious changes that were afoot within the Catholic Church at this tumultuous time. The twists and turns within the story line kept me guessing almost to the last few pages I will read this book again. :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago