Cantilena for Seven Voices: Dante’s Women Speak

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The women in Dante's life and poetry speak to you from the distant 13th century.

Cantilena is a novella-length collection of vignettes, character sketches, and reminiscences in which seven Florentine women look back on their lives and talk about them. Some are speaking from the afterlife, others from late in their earthly lives. Some predeceased Dante and some outlived him, but all figured in some way in his life or his works. Think Thornton Wilder meets Dante. An introduction to Florence circa 1300 describes the city these women lived in, and historical notes at the end clarify what is fact-based and what is fictional. In addition to speaking of their lives, the women tell us what they think of Dante – a rare opportunity for the poet’s subjects to talk back.

"This set of seven dramatic monologues is a literary tour de force. The idea of writing about the women in Dante’s life was a good one from the start, not least that in that in most cases, only a few tantalizing details of their real-life lives remain. Heath’s Cantilena is much more than just a good idea. Her writing takes seven historical figures and realizes them as individual women who speak to us in their own unique voices. After setting the stage with a colourful description of Florence at the time of Dante, Tinney Sue Heath gives us the the beautiful, outrageous and unrepentant Cunizza... telling us her story, and it’s by turns wry, insightful, a touch sardonic, and brimming with a life lived. She is the first of seven individual women who without Heath to give them voice, would otherwise be overshadowed by the men in their lives. At the other end of the book is the saintly Beatrice who Dante adored, and Gemma his wife, about whom the greatest Italian poet wrote not one line. Heath’s Beatrice is sweet but not cloying, beautiful, demure, and blithely unaware of her coming immortality as Dante’s guide to Paradiso. In between are four more fascinating women, each with her own voice and character. Heath brings them all to life and lets them talk to us as if we had been spirited into their homes, to share a bottle of rich, red, truth-inducing Tuscan wine. In vino, veritas, and in Heath’s writing as well."
Seymour Hamilton, author of The Astreya Trilogy

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