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Sebastiano Vassalli: La chimera (The Chimera)

In the foreword, Vassalli tells us that the novel is set primarily in a small Italian village called Zardino (a corruption of the word giardino, Italian for garden). However, this village has now completely disappeared, probably in the mid-seventeenth century (this novel is set at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of seventeenth century). He does not know why but suggests the possibility of flooding – the nearby river Sesia had a habit of changing course but it could have been war, the plague of 1630 or a fire or something ease. In short, these things happen.

The story starts with a baby being placed in the local church in Novara, the customary way for unwanted children to be disposed of. The child is named Antonia (as she was found on St. Anthony’s day) Spagnolini, as she has the dark Spanish eyes. The Spanish occupied large areas of that part of Italy at that time and many a Spanish soldier fathered an illegitimate child with an Italian woman. Antonia is sent to the orphanage, attached to the local convent. Life is hard for the inmates, with not very good food and strict discipline, but they still manage to survive and get on well together, though there is, of course, strict segregation of the sexes. The first major event in her life is when the Bishop of Novara, Carlo Bascapè (link only in Italian), comes to the convent. She is selected to give a speech to the Bishop, as she is the prettiest child in the convent. However, she is nervous and forgets her lines. However, afterwards, during the dinner that is served, the bishop calls her over and gives her a blessing.

The bishop has generally not been welcome in the Novara area, primarily because he has had a mission to stamp out all forms of sin and make everyone into a saint. This has meant that all forms of corruption, lewd behaviour and exuberance have been stamped out. This has had some effect on the convent where Antonia is. Firstly, people coming to to the orphanage to adopt a child have deliberately only picked ugly girls, afraid that they might be condemned for choosing a pretty girl. As a result, the girls that are left in the convent are the pretty girls, like Antonia. Secondly, prostitution has been stamped out and some of the prostitutes have ended up at the convent. Normally, there would be no contact between the prostitutes and the younger girls like Antonia. However, when helping another girl carry out the night soil one day, Antonia could not hold on and the container dropped and broke. Antonia is sent to the punishment cells, where she meets one of the former prostitutes, Rosalina, who tells her, in some detail, about the facts of life, including about how many of the girls in the orphanage will end us as prostitutes. Finally, the bishop clamps down on false priests. These are people who have no priestly training but set up as priests, often earning their living by selling indulgences and offering masses which they have no authority to offer. The hamlet of Zardino has one such, Don Michele. He is driven out by the authorities and warned that if he continues the practice, he will be sent to prison or even executed. He leaves but, having nowhere else to go, he soon returns. He keeps a low profile but, eventually, a real priest, Don Teresio, arrives and drives him out. Don Teresio is much stricter than Don Michele and is determined to drive sin out of Zardino.

Meanwhile, back at the orphanage, a couple come to the orphanage to select a daughter and they select her. She is devastated and leaving her friends but has no choice. They take her to Zardino a small hamlet, which is something of a surprise to her, as it is an agricultural community. She does not fit in. She is not used to men, her only previous acquaintance being with priests, and these men are rough, loud and coarse. The women are also fairly rough – Vassalli gives us some individual portraits and they are not flattering – and reject Antonia, not least because she is by far the prettiest girl they have ever seen. However, she does survive till, suddenly Vassalli changes tone and lets us know that she has been put on trial, as a twenty-year old woman. He does not lead into this trial, nor, indeed, gives us an account of the trial as it happens till much later in the book, but merely reports it as an event in the past.

It is clear that she has been condemned, at least in part, for her good looks, though, of course, her accusers accuse her of being an agent of the devil. One woman tells the story of a young man, a bit simple, but a hard-working, sensible young man. He falls in love with Antonia and his behaviour changes. He becomes unruly, drunk and chases women. They even have him castrated to calm him down. In short, it seems as if he has been bewitched, wilfully, by her. An itinerant painter is asked to paint a Madonna on a municipal building and he uses Antonia as a model. She is condemned for this. She is also condemned for talking to some German soldiers who passed through the village and for laughing at the bishop, when his ill health made him stumble over his speech. Vassalli gives us, in all cases, a version of what really happened. Her real crime seems to have been having a boyfriend who was an itinerant worker, i.e. not one of the villagers. As her best friend, Teresina, said in her testimony, had he been one of the villagers, he would not have been mistaken for the devil.

Vassalli eventually gives us considerable detail of the events leading to the suspicions against her, why Don Teresio feels the need to report her to the Inquisition and why many people in the village seem willing, even eager, to come forward and testify against her. Many have noted that when she enters a house an animal becomes ill or a child is struck dumb. Crops fail when she passes. They had long thought that there was a witch in their midst but, till recently had been unable to identify her. Vassalli also gives us a detailed description of how the Inquisition came to its decision and the hypocrisy of the Inquisitors and their staff. However, while he does make these points, there is no harangue, just a detailed description of the process, with a few comments added.

It is a fascinating book about hypocrisy, the Inquisition, church politics in Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, superstition and, of course, the role of women. Antonia is certainly a victim, a victim since her birth, but she is not going to go down without a fight. Indeed, she has a streak of independence in her, which we can admire but which, at the time, probably led to her downfall. She is, indeed, a heroine and a victim and it is Vassalli’s skill to show us a woman condemned for being pretty and independent.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Einaudi
First published in English 1990 by Scribner