How this Novel came to be written
Nineteen years ago, at an open market on the streets of Budapest, I bought an engraving. I wasn’t by any means an art collector; I was in Hungary doing research for an entirely different book. And I didn’t have a lot of money. But something about this engraving spoke to me. Entitled “Vivaldi,” it shows a young composer writing with a quill on a musical score propped up against a baroque keyboard. Utterly engrossed in his work, he is surrounded by what I took to be angel musicians, who are presumably playing the music as he writes it. The engraving is numbered 73 in an edition of 75 printed by the artist, who signed his name Pituk J.V.
When I returned to California, I had the engraving beautifully framed. Again, this was not at all typical for me at that time. (The reproduction turn-of-the-century posters I brought back with me from Hungary got mounted on foam core.)
The funny thing was that I was living on a sailboat at the time: the only art I could possibly hang on our walls were greeting-card-size reproductions.
So “Vivaldi” went into storage. My husband and I moved off the boat into a house, and then I had a baby. I was working on a novel set in Budapest; “Vivaldi” hung in the house until our landlord said we had to move. And then the picture languished in storage again—patiently waiting, as it turned out, for me to finally realize what it meant to me.
I finished the Budapest novel. My baby had grown into a winsome boy, and I had become a single mom. I wrote a couple of pop psychology books—all the while running an international boarding house—in my efforts to pay the rent on a house situated in the neighborhood of a good public elementary school. “Vivaldi” looked very handsome on the wall of my dining room.
Our rental house was sold, and we had to move again—this time to a postage-stamp-sized cottage in the middle of a garden. “Vivaldi” went underground again.
And then somewhere I read or heard a tidbit of history that lodged in my mind. One of the Italian composers whose name began with a V (I thought at first it was Verdi) was also a priest who taught in an all-girl orphanage.
So many miscellaneous facts we hear are like fireflies that glimmer and beckon and then disappear. But, for whatever reason, this sparkly nugget stayed with me. I found myself at dinner with a gentleman who was an expert in the history of the lute. “Oh, it wasn’t Verdi!” he told me, when I thought I’d tap into his musical expertise. “It’s Vivaldi you’re thinking of—Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest of Venice.”
I went to the library and checked out all the books I could find on Vivaldi. Coincidentally, I’d already started studying Italian, which helped me when I went to the more specialized music library on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. From the sketchy information I was able to find about the Ospedale della Pietà, the institution where Vivaldi taught, I started writing a story. At its center was a foundling adolescent girl I called Pellegrina. She was a violinist, and one of the maestro’s favorites. She was telling her story through letters written to a mother she didn’t even know existed.
My own mother passed away, and I used every penny of the money she left me to put a down-payment on a house. I was sick of being kicked out of houses. It’s a horrible feeling not to have a place you can call your own, especially if you’re a mom or a dad. I will never forget what that felt like.
“Vivaldi” emerged from storage, along with my larger pieces of furniture. And then—finally, as I hung the picture in my bedroom—I understood. Those weren’t angels standing around the composer, serving as his muses. Those were the orphans—or, more accurately, the foundlings—of the Ospedale della Pietà.
A good friend of mine, who is a great traveler, offered to give me some of his frequent flyer miles so that I could actually spend some time in Venice and begin to build a fully textured world to hold my story. By the time I got to Italy, I’d discovered that there was an actual foundling of the Pietà, a violinist named Anna Maria, whose profile was a near exact match for the girl I’d created.
From there on, the story seemed to write itself. I can say with complete honesty that every day I worked on it—about three years, in all—was a joy. I was more in the eighteenth century than in the twenty-first. Sometimes, after a day of writing, when I went to my neighborhood market to buy ingredients for dinner, I would look in befuddlement at the U.S. currency in my wallet, perhaps expecting to see ducats and soldi.
The book’s working title was “Anna Maria dal Violin, Student of
“Too Italian, and too long!” Gail Winston, my editor at HarperCollins told me. “You have to think of a better title.”
I filled a couple of pages in my journal with possibilities. I could think of titles in other languages that sounded great—but nothing seemed to work in English. And then one morning I woke up and saw, as I see every morning, J.V. Pituk’s picture on my wall. “Vivaldi’s Virgins,” I heard in my head and then said out loud.And that is how this novel came to be written. It chased me, and finally caught me. To whatever force in the universe made this happen—and to the spirit of Anna Maria and also Vivaldi—I send my thanks for the honor of being the one to tell this story.