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Alessandra in History

Living in the 14th Century

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How this Novel Was Written

I found Alessandra Giliani by accident, in the course of looking into the life and work of another female anatomist, Anna Morandi Manzolini, who lived in Bologna 400 years later, in the 18th century. The little bit of biographical information I found about Alessandra—this daring teenager who dreamed of doing medical research at a time in history when women were burned at the stake with very little provocation—convinced me that a novel just had to be written about her short, marvelous and mysterious life.

Archiginassio photoFor three weeks, I searched for clues in and around Bologna, exploring the vast holdings of the beautiful archives and libraries there, housed in buildings that are themselves works of art. I slowly parsed academic articles written in Italian, pored over gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, crept around in crypts, and stared at paintings. In all of these, I was looking for the details that tell us what it was really like to live in the province of Emilia-Romagna in the early 14th century. What did it feel like to be a young girl then?

Carrying Water Photo

I knew that all the contemporaneous paintings of scenes from the Bible had 14th century people posing for them: these were Alessandra’s contemporaries, whose ways of reading, sitting, working, learning, loving, and sleeping could be winkled out from these images. A wooden baby walker, a cradle with its rockers arranged end-to-end rather than side-to-side, a person hauling water, lovers sequestered in a private room at a public bathhouse, the very plants and flowers were all pieces of the mosaic I started constructing.

The place itself—the quality of the light, the way the birds sang, and even the drift of plum blossoms wafting down on me as I walked off the path of a pilgrimage road: all of these seemed like dispatches to me from another dimension where Alessandra still lived and wanted her story told.

Flora Bologna PhotoI never thought that history would become one of my life’s passions. I never even liked history when I was at school, apart from the context of literature, music, and art. But history has lately been revealed to me as the place where I live, where we all live, side by invisible side with others who—if we get quiet enough and listen carefully enough—will touch us and tell us their stories.