This is ``the grand story of a girl who lived from 1590 to 1610 and was called Antonia.'' So says the narrator-an unnamed present-day writer-at the opening of this morally outraged yet skin-deep novel set in the Italian countryside. Antonia is an orphan taken in by a well-meaning pair of farmers. As she grows toward maturity and beauty, she draws the affections of the village boys and the enmity of a cabal of older women, whom the narrator refers to collectively as ``the Gossips.'' When she crosses the local priest, a rabid and money-mad tyrant, things take a turn for the sinister. Before long, Antonia stands accused of being a witch, blaspheming priests, cursing neighbors and coupling with the Devil-in short, of being ``a Luther in skirts.'' There are shades of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose here, in that much of the text is given over to authorial commentary and to accounts of infighting between wings of the Catholic clergy. The novel is also rife with graphic descriptions of inquisitions and tortures. Vassalli, a veteran Italian novelist making his American debut, writes nimbly enough to breath life into the dustiest of subjects. Unfortunately, he fails to look far into his characters; Antonia, a silent witness to her own story, is little more than a cipher until the final scenes of the book, when, as she awaits execution, we get some insight into her inner life. (July)
A witch is burned at the stake, and it doesn't seem the time for laughter. But a sad, black humor pervades this historical tale of religious corruption and social upheaval in seventeenth-century Italy. Antonia Spagnolini, "the witch of Zardino," is dumped as an illegitimate newborn at a Catholic house of charity in the northern Italian town of Navara in 1590. Her life lasts only 20 years, because she is female, dark haired, dark skinned, and dark eyed. According to the taste of the times, she's "little short of a monster." Vassalli narrates the story as a modern historian and resident of Navara, embellishing the few available facts about Antonia into compelling fiction. Vassalli believes the way to understand the commotion of the present is to make a direct link to the distant, intangible past. His Counter Reformation Italy is full of the holy, portrayed as religious hypocrites, and the faithful, seen as morally adrift yet decent people abandoned by the clergy and driven by a sense of "summary justice" and the hardships of peasant life. This story reveals how the amorality and corruption of the seventeenth-century ruling class and of ordinary citizens were conveniently projected onto its women, who ended up martyrs to the evil that threatened to consume them all.