If you're already missing summer, what better way to escape real life than to travel to the Italian Renaissance? Imagine being lost inside a sun-baked city with tangled alleys leading to piazzas, loud with gushing fountains. All around, you see palazzos boasting history's most stunning art and architecture. Out of open cathedral doors come the haunting strains of Palestrina's timeless polyphony. Yet behind these glittering facades lurk the cutthroat political machinations made famous by Machiavelli. Enter an epoch of humanism and religious fervor, of philosophers and despots, of courtesans and saints. Pour yourself a glass of prosecco, sit back, and experience the glory and danger of a lost age.
Sacred Hearts: A Novel
By Sarah Dunant, paperback 432 pages, Random House Trade Paperbacks, list price: $15
This gem reveals the secret lives and passions of Benedictine nuns in 1570 Ferrara, a time when their centuries-old autonomy comes under the threat of draconian reforms. Sent to the convent against her will, the young novice Serafina will resort to any method to escape, from open rebellion to anorexia. She finds an unlikely ally in Suora Zuana, a woman who sought refuge in the abbey because this is the only place that will let her practice as a physician. Yet now the reformers threaten to breach the convent walls and confiscate Zuana's books of medicine. Dunant has rooted her fiction in painstaking research. I love the way the author challenges our perceptions of women in this turbulent period of history.
The Lover's Path: An Illustrated Novel
By Kris Waldherr, hardcover 144 pages, Abrams Books, list price: $24.95
Prepare to be transported to 16th century Venice from the first page. This novel is a feast — a full-color picture book for adults that tells a wrenching story of eternal love. Our star-crossed paramours are Filamena, the virginal younger sister of a celebrated courtesan, and Angelo, a cardinal's illegitimate son. Scattered throughout the gilt-edged pages are parchment envelopes that open to reveal love letters, Tarot cards, maps and alchemical symbols. The young lovers are linked mythically and thematically to Dante and Beatrice, Isis and Osiris, Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice, and ultimately Eros and Psyche. This beautiful fable reminded me of Erica Jong's Serenissima, except without the explicit sex.
The Sixteen Pleasures
By Robert Hellenga, paperback 384 pages, Delta, list price: $17
Margot, an American book conservator, travels to Florence to help restore flood-damaged tomes in a Carmelite convent library. There, she uncovers a lost masterpiece of the Renaissance — Pietro Aretino's 16 erotic sonnets illuminated with sensuous engravings.
During Aretino's lifetime, the pope ordered all copies of the volume to be destroyed. Ironically, this forbidden book could be the key to the convent's economic autonomy. Margot and Madre Badessa, an abbess of formidable intelligence, work to restore the book and secretly sell it for a good price. Meanwhile Margot's fate seems to entangle itself with the book's erotic treasures as she embarks on an affair with a mercurial older man.
These books will beguile you, seduce you, spirit you away into another world. As they say, the past is another country. While revisiting this crucial junction in history, we might well gain insight into the beauty and brutality of our own age.
Mary Sharratt is an American author living in Northern England. She is the author of four novels including The Real Minerva and The Vanishing Point. Her most recent novel is Daughters of the Witching Hill.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.